“The Martian” – what it tells us about our daily challenges

I was really inspired the other day by watching “The Martian” at the movies, starring Matt Damon. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir and here’s what the movie blurb says:-

During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meagre supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Not only is this film hugely enjoyable as a piece of entertainment, but it also struck me as a perfect – if somewhat unusual – example of handling apparently insurmountable challenges. Imagine for a moment the scenario that Mark Watney faces:-

  • In the most optimistic assessment, it will be 4 years until another manned mission to Mars – help is 140 million miles away.
  • He has no means to communicate with his crew, by now heading on their way home.
  • He has only 31 days’ worth of food.
  • To survive he needs to find ways to grow food and find or create water … on a planet where nothing grows.

As Watney Himself puts it sitting in his small, isolated mission base on Mars: “If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”

Eventually, both Mission Control on Earth and his crew discover that their “fallen” colleague is, in fact, alive. There follows an agonising debate on whether to return and save him. Is one person’s life worth the danger it will put his colleagues in if they turn around?

Without giving more of the plot away, Watney works hard to – in his words not mine – “Science the sh** out of this!” in finding solutions to the seemingly impossible. The agility of his thinking, combined with a will to find a way beyond any problem and his ability to adapt those resources he does have for unintended purposes is quite breathtaking.

This is Hollywood of course, but it left me thinking that the challenges we all face back here on planet Earth are molehills relative to Watney’s Mars-sized mountain. Unless something incredible happens, none of us is likely to find ourselves left for dead on another planet any time soon. And if we take the time to look around us and try and think differently about the challenges we face, there is almost always an answer.

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