The Martian

Page 11

The next problem I ran in to was the regulator. Despite my swaggering confidence, I wasn’t able to outwit it. It really does not want to pull too much O2 out of the air. The lowest I could get it to was 15%. After that, it flatly refused to go lower, and nothing I did mattered. I had all these plans about getting in and reprogramming it. But the safety protocols turned out to be in ROMs.

I can’t blame it. Its whole purpose is to prevent the atmosphere from becoming lethal. Nobody at NASA thought “Hey, let’s allow a fatal lack of oxygen that will make everyone drop dead!”

So I had to use more a more primitive plan.

The regulator uses a different set of vents for air sampling than it does for main air separation. The air that gets freeze-separated comes in through a single large vent on the main unit. But it samples the air from nine small vents that pipe back to the main unit. That way it gets a good average of the Hab, and prevents one localized imbalance from throwing it off.

I taped up eight of the intakes, leaving only one of them active. Then I taped the mouth of a Hefty-sized bag over the neck-hole of a spacesuit (Johanssen’s this time). In the back of the bag, I poked a small hole and taped it over the remaining intake.

Then I inflated the bag with pure O2 from the suit’s tanks. “Holy shit!” the regulator thought, “I better pull O2 out right away!”

Worked great!

I decided I not to wear a space suit after all. The atmospheric pressure was going to be fine. All I needed was oxygen. So I grabbed an O2 canister from the medical bay. That way, I had a hell of a lot more freedom of motion. It even had a rubber band to keep it on my face!

Though I did need a spacesuit to monitor the actual Hab oxygen level (The Hab’s main computer was convinced it was 100% O2). Each spacesuit knew how to monitor its own internal air, of course.

Let’s see… Martinez’s spacesuit was in the rover. Johanssen’s was outwitting the regulator. Lewis’s was serving as a water-tank. I didn’t want to mess with mine (hey, it’s custom fitted!). That left me three spacesuits to work with. 

I grabbed Vogel’s suit and activated the internal air sensors while leaving the helmet off. Once the oxygen dropped to 12% I put the breather mask on. I watched it fall further and further. When it reached 1% I cut power to the regulator.

I may not be able to reprogram the regulator, but I can turn the bastard off completely.

The Hab has emergency flashlights in many locations in case of critical power failure. I tore the L.E.D. bulbs out of one and left the two frayed power wires very close together. Now when I turned it on I got a small spark.

Taking a canister of O2 from Vogel’s suit, I attached a strap to both ends and slung it over my shoulder. Then I attached an air line to the tank and crimped it with my thumb. I turned on a very slow trickle of O2; a small enough that it couldn’t overpower the crimp.

Standing on the table with a sparker in one hand and my oxygen line in the other, I reached up and gave it a try.

And holy hell it worked! Blowing the O2 over the sparker, I flicked the switch on the flashlight and a wonderful jet of flame fired out of the tube. The fire alarm went off, of course. But I’d heard it so much lately I barely noticed it any more.

Then I did it again. And again. Short bursts. Nothing flashy. I was happy to take my time.

I was elated! This was the best plan ever! Not only was I clearing out the hydrogen, I was making more water!

Everything went great right up to the explosion.

One minute I was happily burning hydrogen; the next I was on the other side of the Hab and a lot of stuff was knocked over. I stumbled to my feet and saw the Hab in disarray.

My first thought was “My ears hurt like hell!”

Then I thought “I’m dizzy,” and fell to my knees. Then I fell prone. I was that dizzy. I groped my head with both hands, looking for a head-wound I desperately hoped would not be there. Nothing seemed to be amiss.

But feeling all over my head and face revealed the true problem. My oxygen mask had been ripped off in the blast. I was breathing nearly pure nitrogen.

The floor was covered in junk from all over the Hab. No hope of finding the medical O2 tank. No hope of finding anything in this mess before I passed out.

Then I saw Lewis’s suit hanging right where it belonged. It hadn’t moved in the blast. It was heavy to start with and had 70L of water in it.

Rushing over, I quickly cranked on the O2 and stuck my head into the neck-hole (I’d removed the helmet long ago, for easy access to the water). I breathed a bit until the dizziness faded, then took a deep breath and held it.

Still holding my breath, I glanced over to the spacesuit and Hefty bag I’d used to outsmart the regulator. The bad news is I’d never removed them. The good news is the explosion removed them. Eight of the nine intakes for the regulator were still bagged, but this one would at least tell the truth.

Stumbling over to the regulator, I turned it back on.

After a two second boot process (it was made to start up fast for obvious reasons) it immediately identified the problem.

The shrill low-oxygen alarm blared throughout the Hab as the regulator dumped pure oxygen in to the atmosphere as fast as it safely could. Separating oxygen from the atmosphere is difficult and time consuming, but adding it is as simple as opening a valve.

I clambered over debris back to Lewis’s spacesuit and put my head back in for more good air. Within three minutes, the regulator had brought the Hab oxygen back up to par.

I noticed for the first time how burned my clothing was. It was a good time to be wearing three layers of clothes. Mostly the damage was on my sleves. The outer layer was gone. The middle layer was singed and burned clean through in places. The inner layer, my own uniform, was in reasonably good shape. Looks like I lucked out again.

Also, glancing at the Hab’s main computer, I see the temperature rose to 15C. Something very hot and very explodey happened, and I wasn’t sure what. Or how.

And that’s where I am now. Wondering what the hell happened.

After all that work and getting blown up, I’m exhausted. Tomorrow I’ll have to do a million equipment checks and try to figure out what blew up, but for now I just want to sleep.

I’m in the rover again tonight. Even with the hydrogen gone, I’m reluctant to hang out in a Hab that has a history of exploding for no reason. Plus, I can’t be sure there isn’t a leak.

This time, I brought a proper meal, and something to listen to that isn’t disco.


I spent the day running full diagnostics on every system in the Hab. It was incredibly boring, but my survival depends on these machines, so it had to be done. I can’t just assume an explosion did no long-term damage.

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