Do The Math – Oh, and Also…

Imagine learning two months after the event that you left a human being behind on Mars.

This moment of horror is brief in the movie, The Martian, because the movie is not about that. It’s about something else.

The crew is on its way back to Earth, having fled Mars during an unexpected (and unrealistic) and potentially lethal storm. During their walk from the habitat to the launch vehicle in high winds, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is impaled by equipment and flung far from the others. His bio monitor indicates that he is dead. Time is of the essence. After a brief search, the crew boards the launch vehicle, and the captain reluctantly gives the order to launch. And a man is left behind. On another planet.

(I am reminded of all the nightmares I had about forgetting to pick up my son at daycare, which of course never happened in real life, but the nightmares were persistent, don’t ask me why.)

Responsibility for others: the greatest burden and the greatest gift.

From what we can tell, Mark Watney harbors no anger or resentment toward the rest of the crew for being left behind. On another planet. His captain, once she learns of his continuing existence, on another planet, appears distressed and comments, “I left him behind.”

Her crew tries to reassure her, “No, we left together.”

“You were following orders. I left him behind.”

And that is the end of it.

From that moment on, it’s back to work. For Watney, for his captain and her crew (who are en route back to Earth), and for NASA.

Fast forward into the future: Mark Watney is teaching young recruits at NASA. His response to those who ask if he thought he was going to die up there:

“Yes. Absolutely. And that’s when you need to know going in. Because it’s going to happen to you. This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything’s going to go south on you. Everything’s going to go south.”

His solution to the challenges faced by mere mortals in space:

“Just begin. Do the math. Solve one problem, then you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

But wait.

Mark Watney, his crew, his captain, and the wonderful people at NASA and at the China National Space Administration solved many, many problems. Non stop problem solving is what the movie (and book) are all about. Forget about psychology, forget about melodrama, forget about emotion. Just focus.

At one point, the captain admonishes her crew (when they have a little problem slowing down their spaceship for intercept with Watney’s ascent vehicle, or some such hiccough), “Come on people, work the problem.”


My favorite character in the movie is the young scientist back on Earth who figures out that it would be “easier” to sling shot the crew’s homecoming spacecraft around Earth, pick up some supplies while in the vicinity (yep), and head back to Mars to pick up the survivor. Easier – and less risky! – than the current plan of sending him supplies until the next Mars mission can pick him up in four years. A classic example of thinking outside the box. And being able to do the math to back up the idea.

Love that guy. (Totally Asperger’s IMO.)

But there’s one person who never gets the credit she or he deserves in the book/movie. There was one decision, one choice, that cemented the fate of Mark Watney. Had it not been for this one act, nothing Watney – or anyone else for that matter – thought of would have saved him.

Who decided to send the potatoes?

A dozen potatoes saved Mark Watney. Nothing else that he figured out how to do, no other problem that he solved – no matter how complex – would have mattered, without those potatoes.

Without the potatoes – which were sent to Mars to give the crew of six a treat on Thanksgiving – Mark Watney would have starved to death before anyone – his own crew or the next – could have reached him. Without the potatoes, Mark could not have created anymore food than what had been sent for the duration of the mission.


Who packed the potatoes?


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