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THE MARTIAN

Life on Mars
Mars is unwelcoming. Its wide temperature range - from -153C to around 22C on a summer day - makes for tricky wardrobe choices. (Layering can only take you so far.) Breathing is even more problematic. The air is 95 percent carbon dioxide. The soil lacks bacteria needed to grow food. Water exists, but only as ice.

Even its reddish color acts as a warning sign: Nothing for you here - except death by asphyxiation and hypothermia.

But humans have never been deterred from going where we are not wanted. So we go to Mars.

Creating an artificial living habitat (Hab) is necessary to facilitate human exploration of the planet. In THE MARTIAN, NASA/JPL has for four years been using unmanned probes to airdrop pre-fabricated parts for assembling a Hab, along with various supplies, food and equipment. The Ares III crew will arrive to such amenities as computers, fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner and a badass ATV known as the Rover. A Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) stands by to return them to the Hermes after their 31-sol mission.

The story begins on sol 18, after the crew has already assembled its Hab: a pressurized canvas structure with 90 square meters of floor space. Significant amounts of solar and neutron radiation penetrate Mars' thin atmosphere, requiring the Hab to be paneled on the outside with filtering layers of Kevlar and Mylar foils and upholstered foam material.

The Hab's interior provides sparse sleeping quarters, a shared work area, pressurizing airlocks for entry and exit, and compact storage for equipment - as well as such life-sustaining appliances as an oxygenator, atmospheric regulator and water reclaimer. It's stocked with enough rations to last six astronauts a precautionary 68 sols. With just Watney remaining, that will stretch to 400 sols. It's enough to buy time, but likely not enough to last until a rescue mission can arrive.

Watney, a botanist, has a few potatoes in the Hab and devises a way to provide the necessary bacteria to make Martian soil fertile for growing more spuds. The humble potato, which once saved an entire civilization from starvation, will again be called upon to sustain human life, on another planet. One problem solved.

Proving once and for all that one agency's trash is another man's treasure, Watney uses the Rover to track down the defunct Pathfinder probe, last heard from in 1997. He uses its camera to rig up a way to communicate with NASA and JPL. Problem two solved. He even figures out how to create more oxygen.

That leaves Lewis' disco music as his remaining major issue.

Things are looking up. Watney has pressurized shelter and oxygen. Food, and a way to grow more. Water, and the knowledge to make more. He can communicate with NASA, with whom he exchanges both jokes and choice words when disagreeing with their directives.

If nothing else goes wrong, the odds of his survival have increased dramatically since he pulled the piece of antenna out of his abdomen.

But Murphy's Law is universal. And something does go wrong.

A terrifying incident destroys Watney's hard work and much of his optimism.

Now the clock is ticking, and NASA's rescue timeline is blown to pieces. A sense of urgency is replaced by the feeling of pending disaster. This is now a 24/7 operation.

A man in peril. A world transfixed by the drama. And only a handful of scientists and astronauts burdened with the decisions that could save him.

From Houston to Beijing, Melbourne to Moscow, people are spellbound by Mark Watney's plight because he is more than an astronaut; he is a symbol. His crisis is testing some of our planet's best thinkers, who are not just trying to rescue a human; they're trying to rescue the aspirations of humanity. It's Mars versus Earthlings and the world is rooting for the home team.

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