Features & Columns

GROUND CONTROL: Self-described 'space nerd' Andy Weir, author of 'The Martian,' at NASA's Mission Control Center at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"I've always been sort of a
science geek," he says. "I know a lot about the space program. I'm not an expert, but I'm an enthusiast. I just really like the stuff. I think the details of the technology are really interesting."

Weir's fascination with the subject matter is quite apparent. Beginning with The Martian's action-packed first chapter, all the way through its nail-biting conclusion, he keeps the science front and center, while simultaneously maintaining a compact and readable style.

From the moment the novel's hero, Mark Watney, realizes that he's been abandoned by his crewmates, he begins plotting his survival—with math. He counts the uneaten rations that the crew left behind, calculating their caloric value and cross-referencing that data point with the number of days until the next scheduled mission to Mars is due to arrive. He soon concludes that his food won't last him long enough. However, it just so happens that Watney is a biologist and the folks back home saw fit to give the Ares team a single serving of uncooked potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. He determines that he may be able to grow potatoes by planting the tubers, but first he needs more water—a problem he overcomes by burning the hydrazine left behind in one of the mission's landing vehicle. (Water vapor is a byproduct of burning hydrazine.)

"Doing the science presented me a with a lot of plot points that I otherwise wouldn't have thought of," Weir says, explaining how his thought-experiment about a manned mission to the Red Planet ultimately led to a fully fledged sci-fi survival tale.

Originally self-published in 2011, Weir's novel made a huge splash with critics and the media—especially among science and technology journalists—when it was re-released to a wider audience by Crown Publishing in 2014. The Wall Street Journal called it "the best pure sci-fi novel in years," and a piece on Wired.com described the book as "the most riveting math problem you'll ever read."

Critics everywhere noted that everything in the novel—from the math underlying the trajectories of the fictional spacecraft, Hermes, to the ingenious hacks that Watney devises to stay alive longer than his intended stay on Mars—all jibe with extant scientific knowhow and currently available technology. In effect, The Martian is more science fact than science fiction.

"We have the technology to go to Mars right now," says Michael Flynn, a NASA scientist working at Ames.

Flynn has been working in the area of developing water recycling systems for manned space missions for about 22 years and has contributed to technology that has been used on the International Space Station. These days, he is working primarily on the development of a human mission to Mars and the establishment of permanent habitats there.

According to Flynn, one of Watney's biggest challenges on Mars would be the scarcity of water. "It's the limiting commodity in space," he says, explaining that due to its weight and the fact that it can be recycled, "the general philosophy is to not bring much water with you and then just recycle it when needed."

David Bubenheim is a senior research scientist at NASA Ames. With a Ph.D. in plant physiology, he's been working on the problem of growing plants in space for more than 20 years.

"I enjoyed the movie quite a bit," Bubenheim says of The Martian. "In terms of the specifics of the plant growth part, I thought that they did a pretty good job. I didn't see anything presented in the movie that I looked at and giggled and thought, 'That seems far fetched.'"

Giving the filmmakers "the benefit of the doubt," he says he believes certain details may have been left out to avoid bogging the audience down with technical jargon.

Bubenheim also likes the crop Weir chose to keep Watney alive. "We've definitely looked a lot at potatoes," he says.

Weir says he's received nothing but "very, very positive feedback" from NASA scientists and others in the space community, and since the film has been in the works, he has been meeting with plenty of people who've built their lives around the stars.

In addition to visiting Ames regularly, he and the cast of the film have been invited to Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Wherever he goes, he is greeted by enthusiastic space nerds, pleased about the excitement his book and the film are generating.

"They've never seen anybody put this much effort into being this accurate," says Weir, who at one point while writing the novel used his programming skills to model the precise orbital paths that the astronauts would chart on their fictional voyage. "They see it as a way to inform the public about the realities of space travel. They hope it will engage the public in the space program."

"I find it very exciting," Bubenheim says about the prospect of The Martian boosting public and government support for a manned Mars mission. When he first began working at NASA, he says the administration was aiming for a 2015 launch date to send humans to the fourth rock from the sun. However, about 10 years ago, funding for the project dried up. "We were very much on track, and then we just stopped working on it."

For the past five years Bubenheim has been working on climate change and ecosystem health.

"If you want to really understand what life is and what the meaning of it is, you need to go out there and find distinctly different life forms and study them," Flynn says, explaining that the DNA of every living organism on this planet can be traced back to a single ancestor. "It's like if you want to study dogs, but all the dogs you have access to are beagles. You can study them all, but you'll only really understand something about beagles—until you find another dog. That changes everything."

In short, Flynn says, traveling to Mars could hold the key to understanding "the meaning of life."

For his part, Weir is hopeful that his book might help Flynn find what he is looking for.

"That wasn't a goal when I wrote the book, but it's an awesome side effect," Weir says. "I'm a big fan of NASA, and I'd like them to have more funding and if somehow my book helps that on, I'm happy."