In Andy Weir's novel The Martian, Mark Watney declares at one point that he's technically a space pirate because

he is going to commandeer the Ares 4 MAV without explicit permission from NASA. The reason he doesn't have explicit permission is that the Pathfinder communications circuits were fried in an earlier mishap, cutting off his communication with NASA. This requires him to undertake his journey to the Ares 4 MAV without external guidance.

In the film, he delivers the same line about being a space pirate; however

he never loses communication with NASA because the Pathfinder communications are never destroyed. He has apparent communications with NASA at least up to the time that he leaves the Hab. So there's no reason he wouldn't have explicit permission from NASA (an explicit order even) to commandeer the Ares 4 MAV.

Given this disparity between novel and film, does the "space pirate" line actually make sense in the latter?

  • 7
    No it doesn't. You are right.
    – kaine
    Oct 5, 2015 at 13:21
  • 1
    My recollection was that his explanation in the movie was, since the Ares 4 was uninhabited, and he wasn't yet in it, NASA couldn't give him legal permission, yet. Seemed like a Catch-22, you can't legally take it without permission, but you can't be given permission until you're already in it. Actual maritime law, or movie handwaving? Dunno.
    – Ralph J
    Oct 5, 2015 at 13:52
  • 5
    He doesn't need to mean it literally - it's just a bit of fun in his head. You'd probably be the same if you were the only person on Mars...
    – HorusKol
    Oct 5, 2015 at 21:56
  • 2
    @HorusKol I'd probably be dead because I'm terrible at math.
    – Liesmith
    Oct 6, 2015 at 2:19
  • 6
    Space Pirates don't care if they make sense.
    – Omegacron
    Oct 15, 2015 at 19:59

4 Answers 4


I just re-watched The Martian, and I think a plausible explanation does exist:

It was only casual permission

In the film, Matt Damon's delivery of the line is very specific: he puts a lot of emphasis on the world "explicitly." It's clear from his delivery that the "explicit" part is the crux of his argument.

"Nobody EXPLICITLY gave me permission to do this..."

Given that he's talking about legal nitpicking, he's likely speaking in terms of legal technicalities. According to that standard, he probably never got official permission to use the Ares 4 MAV.

He likely discussed it with them casually, and he almost certainly got some kind of go-ahead from them, but he couldn't have signed any kind of official documentation and he probably spent his time talking to people who don't actually have the clearance required to allow it. We never see the NASA Director (Jeff Daniels) working the comm, for example.

Obviously no one is going to punish him, but Watney is probably right: he's taking over the MAV without having signed any waivers, without having agreed to any changes in clearance or rank, and possibly without having spoken directly to anyone in charge.

It's a legal technicality, but there IS a difference between casual remarks and explicit permission.

  • 1
    OMG he didn't have a health and safety plan
    – RedSonja
    Dec 18, 2015 at 7:49

According to one person it does:

Mark Watney’s mission is the third manned expedition to Mars, where he resides in a NASA-built “Hab” and drives a NASA rover on the planet’s surface. In a desperate bid to survive, he eventually decides to try driving the rover to a NASA lander that was sent to Mars in preparation for another manned mission taking place roughly four years after his own.

In the meantime, he gets to thinking about Martian law: There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not Earth. And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies. So Mars is “international waters.” NASA is an American nonmilitary organization, and it owns the Hab. So while I’m in the Hab, American law applies. As soon as I step outside, I’m in international waters. Then when I get in the rover, I’m back to American law. Here’s the cool part: I will eventually go … commandeer the Ares 4 lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm system. After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters without permission. That makes me a pirate! A space pirate!

Watney is referencing the Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States and the former Soviet Union in 1967, said Frans von der Dunk, an Othmer Professor of Space Law at UNL.

“Basically agreed upon by the two giant Cold War adversaries, the idea was to prevent the historic land grabs of colonialist times from extending to outer space – thereby hopefully preventing it from becoming another battleground,” said von der Dunk, a foremost authority on space law. “It is often hailed as the Magna Carta of outer space, meaning it serves as the grand framework treaty providing the overarching legal regime for all human activity … in outer space, based on freedom for all to peacefully explore and use (it).”

Von der Dunk generally agreed with Watney’s interpretation of the treaty, saying that “individual space objects … can be made to fall under the quasi-territorial jurisdiction of the state of registry, just like ships or aircraft registered (on Earth).”

As for Watney’s claim to space piracy?

“One could make that argument, yes,” von der Dunk said. “But I would be careful, for analogies with sea piracy are difficult here. If this qualifies as a real emergency, he might well be in his right to grab any craft that could help him out of dire straits if he is not directly endangering others.”

  • 5
    But there's still no indication that he lacks explicit permission in the film. In the novel, the lack of permission comes from the fact that he can't tell NASA what he intends until he uses the Ares 4 MAV to reestablish communication with NASA, but he has to board the MAV in order to do so, which is piracy. In the film, he's told by NASA to go to the MAV.
    – Liesmith
    Oct 5, 2015 at 14:04
  • I am not an expert in space law but from my reading of it wouldn't matter if he had communications or not with NASA Oct 5, 2015 at 14:09
  • 2
    @WayneInYak "ships or aircraft registered on Earth" would constitute the Hab, the Rover, and the lander as NASA owns all three. NASA owns the lander. They tell Mark while he is in the Rover to take the lander which they can do because A: he is in their juristiction and B: it is theirs for them to tell him to take. "Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm system" makes no sense in this context. Your article is correct...when talking about the book.
    – kaine
    Oct 5, 2015 at 18:07
  • I think it is correct when talking about the movie too. The law in question is pretty vague (intentionally) as to what exactly is covered and when it applies. But as I said I am not an expert in the laws governing this area, just reading what others have wrote that are suppose to be experts. Oct 6, 2015 at 13:50
  • Yes, but, if you called for a taxi, and whilst waiting for the taxi to arrive you notice another taxi from the same company sitting nearby unused. Taking it would equate to commandeering it. :p
    – Möoz
    Jan 12, 2016 at 22:25

It's just a screw up from the book to the film adaptation. They liked the "Pirate" line so much in the book, they wanted it in the movie but they forgot to include the part where the pathfinder comm circuits were fried in an earlier mishap in the book.


Spoilers AHEAD

Basically the rover is nasa equipment, in the book he loses communication with them, so he must commandeer that vehicle which is outside of the HAB which is also NASA property, no country can lay claim to mars soil which makes it international waters, and they didnt give him instructions to do so, so he essentially stole the rover to make the trip to ARES IV.


This makes him a space pirate.


In the film however they leave out the part where he shorted out pathfinder, so its a little confusing to someone who didnt read the book, but its essentially the same line.


The pathfinder problem is the only thing I felt like they really dropped the ball on, its a plot device that really connects you to a man with noone to talk to, who gets to finally email people, which explains the ending when hes crying when he hears the crews voices.

  • Yeah, plus the fact that after that it all depended on him to figure out how to prepare for the trip and get past the obstacles on the way: he could no longer rely on the remote experts of NASA. I understand the movie had to leave stuff out (because it would have been a lot less commercial at 4-5hrs long!) but that should have been squeezed in (IMO).
    – davidbak
    Feb 12, 2016 at 1:10

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