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This post is quite different from previous ones: it is an interview with Andy Weir, author of the best-seller book “The Martian”.
If you haven’t read the book yet: Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut, is stranded on Mars after being presumed dead and left behind by his crewmates. The book is about him trying to get his ass out of there. There might be many novels on similar topics, but this one stands out: Andy Weir managed to make it both highly entertaining and scientifically accurate.
Here is a piece of advice: read it before Hollywood fixes images in your head. A movie, directed by Ridley Scott and where Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon, is about to be released. An impressive outcome for what used to be a story on a blog. To make it easier to download, Andy Weir sold it on Amazon at the lowest possible price: $ 0.99. But the novel novel suddendly became one of Amazon’s best-selling science-fiction books. A publishing company contacted Andy Weir. A few days later, it was Hollywood.
When I read it (actually, listened to it; it was my first audiobook), it was easy for me to identify with the protagonist: he was on Mars, I was about to take part in a simulated Mars mission. We are both biologists. And he was trying to produce food and other resources from what can be found on Mars, which is essentially what my research work is about.
There were a few questions I wanted to ask Andy Weir. I also asked family, friends and crewmates what question they would ask him if given the opportunity, and I added the most frequent and most interesting ones to the list. Thank you all. Below are the answers he kindly provided.
How did you teach yourself about Mars exploration?
I’ve been a big fan of the space program my whole life. So I didn’t really teach myself about it so much as absorb it over a lifetime of watching every documentary about space I could get my hands on.
What real-world technologies, research projects, missions or people were your most important sources of inspiration for “The Martian”?
Apollo 13 was the biggest inspiration. It was NASA in crisis mode, dealing with problems one at a time until they found a solution that brought the astronauts home alive.
What is the most rewarding thing for you about the movie coming out? The hardest?
The best thing is seeing my characters come to life and sharing the experience with an audience. The hardest thing for me is the media events and interviews. They’re pretty much endless. I’m looking forward to when things calm down and I can get back to writing.
“The Martian” is generally speaking scientifically sound. The most criticized element is the storm in the beginning, given the low density of Mars’s atmosphere. What would you respond to this?
I knew at the time I wrote it that the storm was inaccurate. I made the decision to sacrifice accuracy for drama. I had an alternate beginning where an MAV engine test causes an explosion, leading to all the problems, but it just wasn’t as interesting. In a man-vs-nature story, I wanted nature to get the first punch in. An interesting side effect is that the general public now knows Martian sandstorms aren’t very damaging (because it’s so often pointed out as the largest accuracy flaw in the film), and they didn’t know that before. So I inadvertently taught millions of people an essential piece of information about Mars. 🙂
Was it your intention, or your hope, to contribute to Mars exploration by inspiring readers?
No, my only intention when I write is to entertain the reader. I never have any moral, agenda, or point to make. I hate preachy writing and I won’t do it to my readers. That having been said, if The Martian helps inspire people then that’s fantastic! But it wasn’t a goal of mine while writing it.
Given the opportunity to be part of a mission to Mars, would you go? What about a long-term simulated Mars mission in an analogue like HI-SEAS, or the Mars Society’s MDRS or FMARS?
No I would definitely not go. I write about brave people, I’m not one of them. I wouldn’t be interested in the simulated missions, either. I just don’t have the psychological makeup to handle them.
Why explore Mars? What would be the benefits for our society?
I believe we should have a self-sufficient human population somewhere other than Earth. It could be the Moon, it could be Mars, or even somewhere else. But somewhere. Until we do that, we have a small, but non-zero chance of extinction because the entire race is in one place. Once we have humans on another world, our odds of extinction pretty much disappear.
The Moon is a good option for colonization, but Mars is even better, if we can find ways to overcome the technological hurdles to transport large amounts of mass there. Mars has carbon dioxide, water, and nitrates in practically infinite abundance. That, plus human waste products, is all you need to grow plants. And that means the colonization opportunities for Mars are truly endless.
What would be your guess regarding the future of SpaceX, Mars One and NASA’s respective missions to Mars?
I suspect SpaceX will continue to drive down the price of getting mass to orbit. NASA and other space agencies will eventually use commercial launch companies like SpaceX to put all their stuff into space in the same way that they use commercial trucking companies to ship things across the country. NASA will shift focus to spacecraft and away from launch vehicles.
And once commercial booster companies get the price to orbit low enough for a middleclass person to afford a trip to space, there will be a space boom and the industry will develop similarly to the commercial airline industry.
When do you foresee the first human landing on Mars? What challenges are in the way?
I’m guessing around 2050. The primary challenges are (in my opinion)
- Dealing with radiation in space
- Developing much more powerful ion propulsion systems
- Developing centrifugal artificial gravity
- Mastering ISRU (making fuel from stuff found on Mars)
Do you think there will ever be a permanent colony on Mars?
Definitely. But not in our lifetime.
What is one tangible, actionable thing that a regular person can do to help make humans on Mars a reality in our lifetime?
Learn science. The larger the general public knowledge is of science, the more scientists we’ll have inventing the technology to make it happen.
How would Mark Watney behave in a mission like HI-SEAS IV? What research project would he conduct? What would he accomplish? What would he do during his free time in the dome?
He would probably do botany experiments with simulated Martian regolith. In his free time, he would probably listen to music that isn’t disco.