Watney makes his journey back to the Hab, slowly and carefully, with the Pathfinder (and its attendant small probe, Sojourner) attached. When he reaches the Hab, after many days on the road, he exults in all the space he finds there. He also checks that oxygen and water are working fine (they are), and that the potato plants have survived his time away. Everything seems to be in good shape, so Watney gets to work trying to reboot the Pathfinder, to send a signal back to Earth. He charges up the old battery, using equipment from the Hab, then waits for the Pathfinder to gain enough charge to try to signal back to Earth. Because Watney knows that the Pathfinder team at NASA won’t be listening to the probe’s radio channels (it being many years past 1997), he toggles through different channels, in the hopes of finding someone who might be able to loop in JPL and NASA.
Watney does manage to connect to NASA, and he and the entire NASA crew (and indeed, much of the Earth’s population, following CNN’s Watney Report) are overjoyed at the news. The Pathfinder’s setup is crude, but Watney can use it to his advantage. It takes about twenty minutes for a signal to be sent from Mars to Earth, or vice versa, and the Pathfinder can only transmit still images, without video or sound. Watney can write his information on note cards, inside the Hab, with a Sharpie pen, but NASA can only communicate back by arranging to move, remotely, the camera on the Pathfinder. Watney arranges for the digits of ASCII code to be laid out in a dial, allowing NASA (painstakingly) to “type out” small messages back to Watney with the camera. Although this process is extremely slow, it manages to communicate effectively. Watney tells NASA that he’s in good shape, and explains how he survived the initial accident and how he’s managed to cultivate potato plants.
Programmers at NASA figure out a way to supply Watney with computer code, which he can use, via Pathfinder, to load a messaging program into the rover. Thus the rover, with Pathfinder as its “modem,” can communicate back and forth with NASA via text, making Watney’s connection to NASA much smoother than the initial camera-ASCII dial method. Watney inputs this information, booting the communication “program” from the rover. He also remains in front of the Pathfinder camera for an image, which Montrose, as press secretary, demands. She insists an image of Watney will placate the many millions of people following his fate on TV and the Internet. Kapoor reveals to a subordinate at NASA that the crew of the Ares 3, still en route home from their emergency abort on Mars, doesn’t know that Watney is still alive. Kapoor insists that crew will be safer if they’re kept in the dark; if they worry about Watney, they might not be able to execute the complex tasks onboard that will help them to get home safely.
Kapoor begins communicating directly with Watney via the rover-Pathfinder-modem setup. Watney is characteristically funny and direct with Kapoor, and Kapoor congratulates him on surviving. Kapoor says they’re going to do everything they can, on Earth, to help Watney get home. And Watney learns that the Ares 3 crew doesn’t yet know he’s still alive. In a quick cut of scenes, however, Mitch Henderson, head of Ares 3, meets with Sanders, NASA chief, to make the case for letting the crew know. Henderson believes that, since all the world knows Watney is alive, they should, too. Sanders, to Henderson’s surprise, agrees, and Henderson prepares to convey this delicate message to Commander Lewis and the rest of the Ares 3 team.
In Chapter 12, the narrative dips back to the Ares 3 crew’s final hours on Mars. The omniscient narration describes the powerful windstorm, Martinez the pilot’s efforts to keep the MAV stable as they prepare to abort, and Commander Lewis’s fruitless effort to rescue Watney before the MAV takes off to reunite with Hermes and return to Earth. The narrative skips ahead four months, to NASA’s message from Henderson to the crew, saying that Watney is alive, and that NASA has been keeping this information secret from the crew for two months, to help them do their jobs effectively in space. The crew, including Lewis, Johanssen, Beck, Vogel, and Martinez, are thrilled at this information, although Lewis can’t forgive herself for “abandoning” Watney in space. The rest of the crew tries to make her feel better, saying that there was nothing else to be done, but Lewis is intensely critical of her decision, even though it allowed the Ares 3 crew to escape Mars’s surface safely.
One of the most important conflicts in the novel is the interior conflict Commander Lewis experiences, after leaving Watney behind on Mars. Although Watney and the crew insist, after the fact, that this was the right decision, Lewis is still deeply upset. She knows she can’t turn back the clock, but she also wishes things might have gone differently—that she could have withstood the storm long enough to continue the search for Watney. And she understands that, as mission commander, “the buck stops” with her. That is, Watney is on Mars because of a decision Lewis made—even if that decision was the right one given what she knew, was supported by the crew, and was in line with NASA’s procedures. The section at the end of this portion of the novel represents a flashback, in which the narrative “time” of the novel is disturbed from a straightforward flow. This flashback is used, here, to provide extra detail regarding Watney’s initial injury. There are many reasons Weir might have chosen to include the flashback at this point. One is dramatic, narrative background, since Weir wants the reader to re-experience the agony of Lewis’s decision to leave Watney (believed to be dead) on Mars. The decision is rendered more vivid by being redescribed at this stage in the novel, well after it initially “occurred” in the narrative of the text. At other times, Weir will use flashbacks to similar effect, highlighting details of important events to make sure the reader can experience them in a kind of “slow time,” apart from the main current of the narrative.
The settings of the novel are important to note, even as the reader might take them for granted. Of course, Watney is on Mars for almost the entirety of the text, although he shifts in location from the Hab, to the rover, to EVAs (walks outside the vehicle/Hab, in a spacesuit). And Watney travels, eventually, from the Ares 3 to Ares 4 sites, a distance of thousands of kilometers, and a journey essential to his rescue. On Earth, too, there are several settings: NASA headquarters in Houston, and a sequence occurring in China later in the text, when NASA requires the help of the Chinese National Space Administration. Weir skillfully toggles between different settings on Earth, and the novel’s “primary” setting on Mars, to demonstrate just how far away Watney is from the life-support networks of Earth.