An idiot's survival guide to being stranded on Mars
Fighting for your survival is always a daunting task no matter where you are on Earth, let alone a hostile, lifeless environment like outer space.
In The Martian – the film adaptation of Andy Weir's 2011 novel that hits cinemas on Thursday (Oct 1) – that's exactly what astronaut Mark Watney, portrayed by Matt Damon, has to do on Mars after he is separated from his crew members during an emergency evacuation of their Ares 3 mission on its surface and left for dead.
While he survives his injuries and has some basic necessities in the mission's habitat – or Hab – to last him for a month, Watney's only hope of rescue is Earth's next manned mission to Mars.
Which is set to arrive in about, oh, four years' time some 3,000-over km away.
Despite the overwhelming odds against him, Watney – who is a botanist by trade – refuses to accept his fate and begins his tale of survival on the Red Planet.
Even though I don't have all the scientific know-how to "science the s**t" (Watney's words, not mine) out of a situation like that, it turns out that apart from that, the very basic tenets of survival seemed to apply in Watney's case as they do in real life.
At least, that's what my experience from watching tonnes of survival shows on Discovery Channel like Man vs Wild and Naked and Afraid have taught me.
Assuming you've got the smarts at your disposal (you should if you're going out on a space mission), here's what you need to remember if you're stuck in a survival situation in outer space.
1) KEEP CALM AND DON'T PANIC
If you don't fear for your life in a survival situation, you're probably already dead (and probably won't be able to put the rest of this article to good use).
However, you must not let that fear control you.
There's no point scaring yourself witless when you should be putting that energy to good use.
Even in a situation where your life is immediately threatened (like when Watney's helmet was smashed, threatening to kill him as his suit depressurised), keeping a cool head can be the difference between life and death.
Gather your wits and get your act together so that you can start planning for the arduous challenge that lies ahead.
2) SET GOALS
A human being needs water, shelter and food to survive.
Outline what you need to get done and then start planning towards it.
Even the most impossible scenario can be turned into something much more manageable if you break it down into smaller tasks.
After taking stock of his rations, Watney realises that he somehow has to make enough food to last him an additional three years.
Which leads us to...
3) BE RESOURCEFUL
Necessity is the mother of invention.
And when you're in need of food on an inhospitable planet like Mars, you're going to have to be really inventive.
Once you're aware of what you have at your disposal, you need to start thinking out of the box when it comes to items we take for granted every day.
Taking a typical scenario on Earth for example, the hide from a dead goat could be used as an insulated sleeping bag at night or a sturdy bone could be fashioned into a useful tool for hunting or building.
For making fire, those who know their chemistry will be able to recognise that certain chemicals or materials are capable of combustion when mixed together.
In the movie, Watney manages to find a stash of potatoes and MacGyver enough water and nutrients (through his own faeces) using material lying around the Hab to cultivate them with the soil from Mars.
As the saying goes, if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.
In Watney's case, life gave him s**t and he made life-saving potatoes. Yummy.
4) MAINTAIN YOUR MORALE
When you have the finish line figured out, it's imperative that you get down to work.
Not only will it occupy your mind and keep you from getting bored, accomplishing small tasks every day will make you feel better about yourself and keep your morale up.
Nothing good ever comes out of wallowing in a puddle of your own despair, so stay positive and always remember why you're fighting to survive, be it for your family, friends or even your pet cat waiting for you to come home.
Trying to appreciate the raw splendour of the nature around you can also take your mind off things for a while.
If you're unfortunate to be hit by a setback (you will be), let your anguish out but always vow to bounce back and be stronger.
Over the course of such an ordeal, one will always be faced with tough decisions to make.
But the feeling of hope is a powerful emotion, so don't underestimate its ability to get you through each day.
5) FORMULATE AN EXIT STRATEGY
Now that you've established a sustainable scenario to keep you alive and fed, it's time to work on an extrication route.
This is your ultimate goal in the long term because, while it feels great to thrive, you're only a disaster or two away from catastrophe.
To get yourself out of a survival situation, you can adopt either an active or passive approach.
If you're stuck on a deserted island, for example, building a raft to get you back to civilisation is an active exit strategy while building a signal fire to get the attention of ships or aircraft passing by to come to your aid counts as a passive method.
Of course, you can't cobble a spacecraft together on your own on Mars (unless you're a super genius rocket scientist with a wealth of parts lying around), so you'll have to adopt a more passive approach by somehow getting the message back to Earth that you need rescuing.
For the film, Watney located and salvaged the Mars Pathfinder to establish communications with NASA to let the world know that he was still alive.
Ultimately, without spoiling the movie too much, his exit strategy (and fate) relied on a mixture of both active and passive approaches.
So the next time you find yourself fighting against nature in a battle for survival (whether you're on Earth or in space), always remember that when there's a will, there's always a way out.
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