Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, follows an astronaut stranded on Mars and out of communication with Earth as he attempts to survive an almost impossible situation.
How did your interest in human exploration of Mars develop?
My father has a great love of science and he indoctrinated me into it early. I think I was 12 or so when we designed a moon base. Also, he had a huge collection of sci-fi paperbacks, so I grew up reading Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and countless other fantastic authors. One of those books was Heinlein’s Red Planet. I read it in a single day and I’ve loved the idea of Mars exploration ever since.
Are you anything like Mark Watney, your main character, a guy who can fix anything with a screwdriver and some duct tape?
I am certainly not that guy. I once tried to modify a walkie-talkie, and it literally exploded (too much power through a capacitor). All the stuff that Mark just “knows” came from tons of research by me. The physics, chemistry, electronics, etc., is as accurate as I could make it. The craters and other landmarks described are all real and in their correct locations. I even wrote my own software to work out the orbital trajectories that Hermes [his spacecraft] takes. But to the reader, it’s all just stuff Mark knows. Astronauts are a cut above normal people, after all. Even a casual joker like Mark.
How did you plan out the difficulties Mark was going to encounter?
The crux of the story is problem solving, so I put a lot of thought into it. I wanted the problems to be sensible, and I didn’t want there to be any huge coincidences. I tried to make each one lead to the next. Also, I didn’t want Mark to be perfect. Some of the problems aren’t caused by the environment at all, but from critical mistakes he makes.
Are we going to see humans traveling to Mars in the next 50 years?
There’s nothing I would like more than to watch a manned Mars landing. I was born too late to experience Apollo 11, though I do trek to Dad’s house every time there’s some space event. There’s something awesome about crossing your fingers and watching a tense Mission Control room do their thing. That said, I’m not sure we’ll have a Mars landing any time soon. Back in the days of Apollo, sending humans to the moon was the only viable way to get the scientific data we wanted. But now, with our computer and robotics technology, there’s very little an astronaut can do on Mars that a well-designed rover can’t.