Mars

Would Mark Watney Have Survived in Real Life, and What This Can Teach Us About Sending Humans to Mars

We want to send humans to Mars eventually, and while this will be both a historic and exciting journey, it could also be tragic and terrible, and we must also address the potential pitfalls and risks of such an adventure. The intent behind this is to allow fans of space exploration to consider the full picture of such an endeavor. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Real-life human space exploration has done a good job taking cues from science fiction, and as we prepare to send humans to Mars in the coming years, we should examine one science fiction franchise that captivated the hearts of millions. That franchise is The Martian, with both the book and film being absolute triumphs, for they depicted the full might of the human spirit as the protagonist, Dr. Mark Watney, endured countless roadblocks and setbacks as he overcame planet-sized adversity just to make it home. But as heartwarming as The Martian was, this still begs the question: Would Mark have survived in real life? The answer is….

Maybe.

Let’s first examine why Mark might not have survived, and we outline two reasons: Mechanical failures and radiation sickness. One crucial juncture in his journey was when his habitat airlock literally blew out, which destroyed his crops and depressurized the habitat. While the reason behind this was not mentioned in the film, the book describes the reason for the blowout as being from overuse. Mark said himself that his mission was designed for only 30 days but for redundancy they had ~60 days of food. NASA excels at redundancy. However, one must consider that all mechanical components have lifetimes, and at some point, they just literally fall apart or stop working entirely. Now, if his airlock gave out due to overuse, then could his other mechanical components in the habitat have done the same at some point? Most notably, the oxygenator, water reclaimer, and atmospheric regulator, which were all responsible for literally keeping him alive. If one fails and he can’t fix it, he’s dead. Also, one tiny hole in that plastic sheet he used to seal the airlock would have killed him instantly, as well.

The next reason is radiation sickness, as Mark was in a habitat on the surface for 18 months on a planet with no magnetic field or ozone layer to protect him from the cosmic rays coming down every day. It’s never mentioned whether his habitat was sufficient to offer adequate shielding from this radiation, but assuming it’s not, his health might have started to deteriorate after a while, which might have been exacerbated by his weight loss over the course of his journey. We think his mechanical components might have failed before this happened, but we digress.  

Now, let’s examine why Mark might have survived, and we need only one reason, which we’ve mentioned already: redundancy. NASA is built on redundancy. They have backup plans for their backup plans, and on and on. An excellent example of this is the Apollo 13 mission, which saw three astronauts stranded in space after their oxygen tank exploded on the way to the Moon, and in the end, they swung around the Moon once and came home. While the film depicts absolute chaos in mission control and astronauts yelling at each other in space, this quite literally never happened, which can be found in the archived audio recordings. Everyone remained calm, cool, and collected because they had things under control thanks to redundancy. They knew what do to and how to do it. Before we send humans to Mars, it’s highly likely NASA will have plans in place for the worst-case scenarios, to include the probability of someone being stranded on the Red Planet.

Before we send humans to Mars, we must consider all probabilities. The good, the bad, and the ugly. We must remember that while going to Mars will be both historic and exciting, it could also be tragic and terrible. Would Mark have survived on Mars? Maybe. But as we continue to plant our flag a little farther in the cosmos, let’s take our cue from this great franchise to mitigate the potential risks and pitfalls of sending humans to Mars.

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Laurence Tognetti

Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.

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