The Martian’s ingenuity is out of this world

By Tracy Cozzens | Managing Editor, GPS World magazine

Last year on my way home from the ION GNSS + Conference in Tampa, I spotted a bright orange book in the San Francisco airport. The Martian, by Andy Wier, is now a major motion picture.

The Martian explores how a lone astronaut struggles to survive long enough to be rescued from the Red Planet. Weir sets his story in the near future, and grounds it in real-world science. How can a man survive in a hostile environment far longer than the supplies left for him will hold out? What life-support systems can he engineer with the resources on hand?

From page one, I was plunged into a gripping adventure — sometimes on the edge of my seat, sometimes thinking about engineering and science in new ways. I found myself re-reading explanations for astronaut Mark Watney’s resourceful solutions (shades of MacGyver) to make sure I understood what he was attempting and how it might actually work. But Weir also infuses the story with tongue-in-cheek humor, so the story was never dry. It moves quickly, jumping between Watney’s situation on Mars and mission control back on Earth.

One sequence in the book describes Watney’s remarkable ingenuity in solving a navigation problem in a truly GPS-denied environment, with only the limited supplies he has on hand. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that the solution includes old-school triangulation, with a few twists. With a fierce dust storm bearing down on him, Watney employs his knowledge of positioning, navigation and timing in an effort to aid his own rescue. This scene reminded me of how my magazine, GPS World, includes many location technologies because GPS, while still in our name, is far from the only solution.

Now The Martian is a major motion picture, with a cast of A-listers and starring Matt Damon as Watney, the futuristic Robinson Crusoe. While it’s easier to watch a two-hour movie, I suggest anyone who’s fascinated by the science in fiction pick up a copy of the novel that inspired it.