Andy Weir’s science-fiction thriller The Martian has remained on Amazon’s best seller list since its publication in February. The novel—which has received accolades from astronauts including Chris Hadfield—is set in the not-too-distant future, when astronaut Mark Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission to Mars. Just six days after landing on Mars, the Ares crew must abandon their mission due to a colossal dust storm. When Watney’s crewmates see his spacesuit’s life-signs go flat after being blown away by a 175-kph wind gust, they reluctantly leave him behind. Watney isn’t dead, although he may as well be. He’s stranded on Mars, with no way to communicate with his spaceship or Earth, meager supplies, and a pressurized shelter designed to last just 31 days.
Weir spoke with Air & Space Senior Associate Editor Rebecca Maksel in March.
Air & Space: Congratulations on the success of The Martian! It’s a terrific read. I know that it was originally self-published on the web. Does the print version differ significantly from the first edition?
Weir: Thanks! There are no plot differences between the two versions. The print version had the benefit of an editor. Some scenes are much better, some confusing bits have been rewritten, etc. But it’s all wordsmithing and smoother sentence structure. No changes to the story.
What were your favorite books as a child? The Martian seems so influenced by adventure novels.
I loved classic sci-fi. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. If I had to pick a single favorite, I’d probably say I, Robot, though my opinion on that changes from day to day.
What did you do at Sandia National Labs? And, more important, how did you get a job there at 15?
It was a community outreach program. I was a lab assistant.
Are there any moments in the history of space exploration that made you want to write a novel such as this? I ask because Watney clearly idolizes the Apollo astronauts—I loved what he says to psych himself up for the trip to Schiaparelli Crater: “ ‘What would an Apollo astronaut do?’ He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.”
Oh, definitely. The inspiration for the book is Apollo 13.
How much did you study the maps of Mars? Did you have to change any of the story based upon Mars’ topography?
I did all the research first, so I didn’t need to change anything. But yes, I definitely spent a lot of time poring over Mars maps.
Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer who supplements his food by growing potatoes. What kind of research did you do into his menus?
I didn’t do much research into what the rations would be. I could assume a NASA mission would have nutritionally balanced meals. The problems for Mark came when he had to grow his own food. And he had to supplement his diet with vitamin pills.
I really became invested in the secondary characters in The Martian. Mindy Park became a favorite, as well as the somewhat volatile Annie Montrose, head of NASA’s media relations. Do you have a favorite among them?
Other than Mark, Annie Montrose was certainly the most fun to write, because she’s so blunt. Though of all the secondary characters, I liked Commander Lewis the most. Mark is an Everyman, while Lewis is everything an astronaut should be.
Was there an obstacle you wanted to put in the book, but couldn’t figure out how Watney could overcome it?
Yes. Originally I had it in mind for the RTG [nuclear-powered battery] container to breach, forcing Watney to abandon it for fear of getting radiation sickness. But the heat from the RTG was absolutely critical to his survival. I couldn’t make the numbers work out without the RTG’s heat supply. So I had to abandon that plot idea.
What is your opinion of NASA’s current plans (or lack of plans) to go to Mars?
There’s a lot of technology needed before we can even consider a manned Mars mission. I think NASA is right to be focusing on the details instead of wildly plowing forward. However, I think they’re wasting their time and money with SLS, which is monumentally expensive when compared to commercial boosters.
Are you following the “Mars One” enterprise at all? Are you surprised that some 200,000 people applied for a one-way mission to Mars?
I don’t take Mars One seriously at all. They would need literally a million times as much money as they have to get to Mars. As for the volunteers, there’s a big difference between filling out a form saying you'll spend the rest of your life in a prison-cell-sized box and actually doing it.
The Martian began as a series of posts on your blog. Would you consider the serial format for a future book—like Armistead Maupin did for Tales of the City or Alexander McCall Smith did for 44 Scotland Street?
I wasn’t really going for a serial presentation. My writing site was mostly to get critique and feedback from my regular readers. I would often change already-posted chapters as a result. The goal was to make a book, and the readers helped me make it as entertaining as I could.