Watney realizes he might not be able to establish communications with Earth for some time. He figures he’ll have to make plans to travel to Schiaparelli crater on his own, and hope he meets the crew of Ares 4 there. To reach the crater, he’ll need to use one of the Ares 3 rovers, but these machines aren’t designed to travel the thousands of kilometers required by this mission. Watney therefore sets to work redesigning the rover so it can make it a substantial distance across Mars. To modify the rover, Watney attaches some of the Hab’s solar panels to it, and rigs an extra battery in a pouch over the side of the vehicle. To generate heat (so that the rest of the rover’s energy can go to powering the wheels), Watney places inside the RTG, a plutonium engine used by the Ares 3 crew when they landed on Mars. Although Watney recognizes that it’s an enormous safety risk to have this highly radioactive (though sealed) device near him, he sees no other option for heating the rover effectively. When he digs up the RTG, which has been “stored” far from the Hab for safekeeping, he sees just how solitary his life on Mars is. This small journey, to pick up the RTG, is Watney’s first time out of sight of the Hab, and the idea of his loneliness briefly scares him. After rigging up enough food, water, and oxygen for an extended test trip in the rover, Watney hints to the reader that he “has a goal in mind” for this intermediate journey, although he doesn’t share exactly what that goal is.
Chapter 8 begins with NASA's Mars chief, Kapoor, appearing on a new CNN show called Mark Watney Report, which is now a hit show. Kapoor updates the host and audience about Watney’s apparent goal, to reach Schiaparelli, although Kapoor also notes that NASA might have a plan to rescue Mark where he is, obviating the need for him to drive thousands of kilometers. The chapter then cuts to a meeting between Montrose, Park, Kapoor, Sanders, Bruce Ng (head of the Jet Propulsion Lab, or JPL), and Mitch Henderson, the flight director of Ares 3. The assembled group discusses options for rescuing Watney, including trying to re-rig the MDV to allow for low-orbit flight to Schiaparelli, an idea which many in NASA find to be too dangerous. Henderson wonders why Park is at the meeting, but Kapoor defends her, saying that Park is essential to the team since she’s the person who noticed, via long-distance, grainy images of Mars, that Watney is still alive.
NASA continues trying to figure out how to communicate with Watney, something they feel is of paramount importance, since NASA deems Watney’s desire to drive to Schiaparelli an enormous risk (mostly because the rovers simply aren’t designed for so rugged and prolonged a trip). As the chapter closes, Kapoor and Park realize, via the image feed, that Watney is headed for the spot on Mars where Pathfinder landed in 1997. Pathfinder was an unmanned probe to Mars (and is an historically accurate reference). Kapoor and Park figure out that Watney can use Pathfinder as a kind of radio/modem, to communicate with Earth, if he can repair its computer and solar panels, which went offline in the 1990s. Kapoor and Park celebrate Watney’s ingenuity in driving the rover to unearth the probe. Soon after, the narrative returns to Watney, who continues on his drive to “Carl Sagan Memorial Station,” or the part of Mars where the Pathfinder last transmitted back to Earth in 1997. Watney makes the drive slowly and carefully, stopping every so often to recharge the batteries, via the solar panels, which power the rover’s wheels. Watney's persistence pays off: he finally reaches Pathfinder, and using a clever incline of rocks, manages to “hoist” it up on top of the rover. Watney calls Pathfinder his “broken radio,” a piece of equipment that, with luck and some skill, might just allow him to communicate with NASA back on Earth.
A notable feature of this section of the novel is its mood. Weir maintains, overall, a relatively straightforward, indeed somewhat flattened, affect. Part of this is structural: Watney reports on things typically before or after they’ve happened, and of course Watney himself is trained as an empirical scientist, and emphasizes detail and reporting of facts when he speaks. But this structure, of projective or retroactive reporting, also means that, most of the time, when bad events occur, Watney is speaking about them after the fact. This allows Watney some space to vent about his ill luck, as he does occasionally; but it also means that, more often than not, the event is relayed in an even-keeled fashion. Watney realizes there’s nothing he can do to change a bad event that’s already in the past; all he can do is look forward. This mood of even-keeled reporting pervades a good deal of the novel.
It’s also worth noting that large portions of The Martian are fairly repetitive, by design. Watney must live for years on Mars, if he’s going to survive and make it back to Earth. His only possibility of rescue is to make it to the Ares 4 landing site; or, as is revealed later, to meet up with the Ares 3 crew once they’ve slingshotted back to pick him up. To survive, Watney needs to ensure life’s necessities: things that, of themselves, might not carry a lot of dramatic heft. But having adequate water, food, and air to breath is absolutely essential for Watney. It is the core of the book’s drama. Watney takes some comfort in relaying to the reader all the basic, elemental tasks he’s set out for himself. And there’s something about the repetitive structure of the novel—walking around on Mars, cleaning solar panels, irrigating crops—that makes for a consoling and affirming read. Watney has an impossible-seeming task before him: survival on a hostile planet. But he also has a set of discrete, easily-planned-for tasks in front of him. Watney chooses to look at his Martian life from the latter perspective, and this, more than anything else, allows him to survive.
The novel also has a structural, narrative component worth noticing: its complementary viewpoints, from Mars and from Earth. Sometimes these viewpoints run parallel to one another, as when Watney is communicating with Kapoor, and they’re all working collaboratively on Martian problems—for example, how to modify the Hab or rover. Other times, however, this communicative link with Earth is severed, and the perspectives are no longer parallel. Instead, the reader toggles back and forth, with the author, as Watney attempts to guess what NASA is doing, and NASA tries to figure out what Watney knows. This structure of complementarity will be used to great effect in the final section of the novel, when Watney makes his last drive to the Ares 4 site in the rover.