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The Martian's Andy Weir Talks Economics (and Sex) on the Moon in Artemis: Podcast

Weir's new book Artemis imagines life in a lunar settlement.

AmazonAmazon"One thing we've learned from The Phantom Menace is don't start a story with a dissertation of economics," says Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Last week he released a new novel, Artemis, about a settlement on the Moon. Where The Martian, which was turned into a blockbuster starring Matt Damon, is powered by plot-driving engineering mishaps and triumphs, Artemis gave Weir a chance to unleash his inner "economics dork." The political economy of the moon is a fascinating part of the new book, featuring guilds, crony capitalism, reputation mechanisms, a non-state quasi-currency, sex tourism, smuggling, and more.

Reason magazine Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward talks with Weir about life on the moon, his desire to read more hard science fiction, why he thinks we don't have to worry about protecting Mars' ecosystem, zero gravity honeymoons, and the fact that he doesn't much care how or where SpaceX's Elon Musk dies.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: Today I'm talking with Andy Weir. He's the author of the bestselling novel The Martian, which was turned into a blockbuster starring Matt Damon. He has a new book out called Artemis. Thank you for joining us Andy Weir. How are you doing?

Andy Weir: I'm good. Thanks for having me.

Mangu-Ward: You've got a new book out, it's a follow up to The Martian but it takes place on the Moon, called Artemis. Tell us a little bit about why the Moon.

Weir: I wanted to write a story about the first human city that isn't on Earth. There are really only three locations that that's likely to be. Either low Earth orbit or the Moon or Mars. Lower Earth orbit is an immediate no go because you have to transport every gram of material you'd have to transport up there. There's no local materials to use. But Mars and the Moon have lots of material to use that you can build your city out of. Between those two, the Moon is better for whole bunch of reasons. First off, it is ludicrously closer. If you were standing on a football field and you were at one goal line and Mars was at the other goal line, the Moon would be four inches in front of you. That's the difference in scale of how far apart these things are. Then, the other thing is it's close enough Earth that you could have regular trade and tourism if the price were right.

Mangu-Ward: The Martian is more about exploration, Artemis is more about colonization or settlement. Did you find that those problems were fundamentally different when you sat down to write? We think here at Reason a lot about what do frontiers mean for civilization, what does it mean for people to have an idea of an uncharted place? But one thing I was struck by in your description of the Artemis settlement on the Moon was how settled in it felt. How weirdly normal.

Weir: The story takes place 20 years after the founding of the city. It's not just super early days but it is still very much a frontier town. It's only got a population of about 2,000 people and the problems that you have to solve for long term habitation are completely different than the problems you have to solve just for exploration and visiting.

Mangu-Ward: Yet in both, our hero is always going to die.

Weir: Our hero's always going to die?

Mangu-Ward: Well, there's constant peril. You gotta have some peril.

Weir: Yes, I see what you're saying. Yes, always seems to be a problem for our poor hero.

Mangu-Ward: Poor science fiction heroes, always going to die.

Weir: Poor science fiction heroes, always in danger. Well wouldn't be much of a story if it's just here's a tale of Artemis, a city on the Moon.

Mangu-Ward: Where everything is going fine.

Weir: Everything goes great. The end.

Mangu-Ward: This book has a lot of exploration of political economy or the economics of another place of living, another way of living. For Reason fans, there's extra national, political settlements, there's a bank that's not really a bank, there's the whether or not you have the right to smoke in your own room, there's sex tourism, it feels like you're winking at your Libertarian friends a little bit here. Is that something you had in mind?

Weir: Not deliberately. Not deliberately. First off I just want to be clear, I never have a political message or motive or anything in any of my stories. I'm never trying to push any agenda or change the reader's mind on anything. All I want when the reader's done with the book is go like, is to put it down and go like, "Huh, that was cool." And maybe recommend it to their friends. Libertarianism or just low, low, low regulation environments are the emergent human behavior of a frontier. That's just, it always works out that way because brand new economies that are highly isolated, don't have the resources to have a lot of laws because they don't have the resources to enforce them. They have to start with the most important things and then work down the chain as they grow as a civilization. At this point Artemis has one cop. One lawman and so his main focus is on making sure people don't kill each other or beat each other up or stuff like with that. He's less concerned about detailed regulations.

Another thing is that Artemis is not a government, it's not on any sovereign territory, it's from a legal perspective, it's functionally the same as a boat out in international waters. The Moon cannot be claimed as territory due to a large international treaty that's been around for half a century. It would be difficult to enforce complex laws there because the first thing that people would do is challenge your authority to enforce laws there at all. Really the only laws that apply are international maritime law.

Mangu-Ward: You present the Artemis colony or settlement as sailing under the Kenyan flag. Talk about why Kenya.

Weir: Within the main conceit of Artemis is that the price to low Earth orbit has been driven down by commercial space competition to the point that middle class people can afford to go into space. Kenya in the story realized they have a natural resource that they have to offer. Well two in a way. First off, they're on the equator. The equator is much more economical to launch from because that's where Earth's rotation is fastest. If you imagine if you're standing on the equator, if you think about how fast a point is moving around the equator compared to how fast it's moving at 10 degrees latitude or something, it's fastest at the equator. You actually get about 1/16th of the total velocity you need to get into orbit just by being on the equator. That's a thing that makes launching cheaper.

Number two, they're on Africa's east coast which means that you always launch east to take advantage of Earth's rotation and by being on the east coast, that means you're launching out over the water. That's why our launch complex here in the United States is as far south as we could get it in the continental US and on the east coast. Same principle. So they had those natural resources to offer but then the other thing they did was they made all of their laws and policy as friendly to the space industry as they possibly could. They removed all the restrictions, they got rid of all red tape thereby just hey, if you want to go into space just make sure you file a flight plan with our aviation administration, same as if you were flying a plane just so that we don't crash planes into your rockets. But other than that, go to town.

I've talked to many private space groups who have said that the main impediment to private space exploration now, mostly with probes and small craft, but still the main impediment is no longer technology, it's policy. Kenya offers that and competes with all the other countries in terms of policy. They also offer tax breaks and they eminent domain the ideal locations for, they do a bunch of stuff that you would not necessarily consider nice or fair. They have special laws that allow union busting for just this one company, the Kenyan Space Corporation and everything else. It's not some utopian oh, and everybody gets along. They did that to pull in this multi billion, well probably multi trillion dollar space industry at that point. And the country prospers. They get lots of tax revenue from it and lots of employment and so on.

Mangu-Ward: The role of the guilds both on the moon and back in Kenya, the unions is something that I was struck by as I was reading the book. You don't get a lot of science fiction, especially hard science fiction where people say, "Hey, what is going to happen with unions?" That kind of, that level of realism but still a big picture look. I find that I often make it to the end of particularly movies and say, "Okay that was all very well and good but none of their money made any sense. None of their economy made any sense. None of their labor practices made any sense." There's a tendency to say, and then there are robots and hand wave away the rest. You didn't do that here although there are robots. Have you gotten any pushback on it? Is one question but also why did you choose to depict, in particular, the guilds the way you did?

Weir: No I haven't gotten any pushback, first off. Second off, I'm an economics dork in a lot of ways. I'm way more interested in economics that my readers will be. I work out all of the economics and made sure it would work but then I only talked about the aspects of it that were directly relevant to the plot 'cause I didn't want to bore the reader to tears. I like to say one thing we've learned from The Phantom Menace is don't start a story with a dissertation of economics.

Mangu-Ward: We learned a lot of things from the Phantom Menace but that's certainly one important takeaway.

Weir: Yeah. In terms of unions or the much older word for union, guilds, is on the Kenyan side, which is on Earth, they made laws that enabled or allowed basically allowed this huge monolithic, not monolithic, it's actually a consortium. This huge company to do as much union busting as they wanted. And the main reason for that was they wanted to do everything they could to make Kenya the location for the space industry. Meanwhile Artemis is a different story. Artemis is an almost completely unregulated economy. While that does some with a bunch of benefits that I'm sure your readers and listeners would love to talk about, it does also come with some downsides. One thing is price fixing. When you have an unregulated economy, you can end up with, well I just went ahead and called them guilds because that's what they are. It is effectively a cartel. However, since there's no national labor act in Artemis, not everybody joins those guilds and so there's some friction among the workers in any given profession.

Mangu-Ward: There's one place in particular where we have the backstory of our protagonist's father and his relationship with the guild and there's a point where you casually say, well listen, his work was really good and so he wasn't necessarily part of guild but it meant that everything rested on his reputation and the power of reputational mechanisms in a low law or low regulation place was a big part of the story. Is that something that you have made a formal study of? There's certainly economists that devote their lives to that question. Or is that something that arose organically as you were writing?

Weir: It was definitely organic and also while it is true, yes, Artemis is definitely a low regulation setting but the main reason reputation is so important is because they're a very small group of people. There's 2,000 people. So if you imagine, it's not like Manhattan, it's like Mayberry. It's a very small town, everybody knows everybody so everybody knows that Amar Bashara, that's the main character's father is an honest businessman who gets the job done and he does it well. That reputation carries. I don't know, I'm not an economist so I don't know how well that concept of business would scale when you get into the millions of people range. I certainly wasn't making any statement on that, I was just, everything in the book is just what I considered to be emergent human behavior when you put people in a frontier town. And more importantly, in a frontier town with a basically one single industry that it makes it all its money off of, in this case the tourism industry.

Mangu-Ward: Right. The quasi-currency is also a part of this too. The idea that the currency is dictated by the cost of getting something from Earth to the Moon.

Weir: Right. Their currency is the SLG and it's S, L, G, it's short for soft landed gram. It's a reserve currency it's not a cryptocurrency, it's not fiat money. It is a reserve currency. However, instead of being a commodity backed currency like the gold standard or something like that, it's a service backed currency. Which again, I'm not an economist, I don't know if there has ever been, there probably has, I assume, but a service backed currency. It's weird. What it really is from a legal standpoint is it's store credit with the Kenya Space Corporation. It's what it works out to be. You're like, I want to pay in advance for a certain amount of mass to be transported to Moon but I haven't defined what that's going to be yet so just I have a store credit. And then later on, I want to transfer this store credit to Katherine 'cause I bought some apples from her. It makes it a defacto currency but it's not an actual currency in terms of global regulation or anything else. It's a completely unregulated currency which leads to other exciting things.

One thing that didn't come up in the book at all but I've thinking about service backed currencies for a while, ever since I came up with SLGs is that if back on Earth let's say some company built a better mousetrap and they're like, hey, congratulations, we just figured out how to send stuff to the Moon at half the price of the current stuff. We've had this huge leap in technology, we've had this huge accomplishment, great step forward for mankind. Well then the value of the SLG is going to plummet 'cause that's the danger of having a service backed currency. If you have, if your currency is on the gold standard and someone finds this gigantic pile of gold in your country then all of your currency is worth a little bit less.

Mangu-Ward: The thing that's interesting about the distinction there is in fact, a half price lift to the Moon would ultimately be fantastic for the economy but it would create huge currency based turmoil in the short run.

Weir: It would. It would create huge currency based turmoil in the short run. People might forget that what they're actually doing in a really weird and round about way is investing in the Kenya Space Corporation. In a really weird roundabout way they're trading stock.

Mangu-Ward: The citizen investor. It's a bunch of Republicans are into that somewhere.

Weir: Oh okay. Yeah. But really for the most part, they just want to use it as money because it's a very international city. They don't have any immigration restrictions. If you can afford to live there, congratulations, you can live there. No one's going to care of you though. The question would be well what currency would they use? Would they all use dollars? Would they all use euros? Would they use yen? Would they use Kenyan dollars because it's a flag to Kenya? That's when I realized that all the math I was doing, everything economic related always came down to the price of transporting things to and from Earth. So I'm like, alright let's skip out a few, let's skip a few steps and just accept that that's the main driver.

Mangu-Ward: Your approach to the economics in Artemis sounds very similar to your approach to the engineering problems embedded in The Martian. When that book initially came out there a was a lot of discussion about how you had composed it to over simplify live, in real time online with friends. Is that, I imagine that that was in some ways impossible to do once you were famous. Did this wind up being a more put your head down and just think about yourself project? Or, is there a secret identity online that you assumed? How did you do the process this time?

Weir: It was just me on my own this time. In The Martian, to be clear, people love the idea of crowdsourcing so much they've modified the narrative a little bit on what happened.

Mangu-Ward: Tell me the real narrative. I feel like I'm part of the problem.

Weir: The real narrative on The Martian, is I wrote it, I did all the research myself, I wrote it, I posted chapters and then my fans would tell me if I had errors. It was more like I had 3,000 fact checkers. These are extremely skilled, knowledgeable fact checkers. They're like, oh, hey, this chemistry you have here in the middle of this chapter here, it's wrong. The stoichiometry would work out to be like this and not that. It was more like that. There are some people who are such fans of crowdsourcing that they want to put it up there as an example of like, oh look, he crowdsourced this whole novel, as if I was a referee or something. It's like no, I wrote the whole book myself. I did all the research myself, I did all the math myself and math errors were pointed to me by my fans and then I thanked them and gave them credit online when they did and then I made the fixes. I corrected them.

Mangu-Ward: Let's talk about that a little bit. Why do you think people like that idea so much? Is this just James Surowiecki has poisoned all of our brains to imagine that the wise crowds are swirling around us everywhere and always or is there some deeper thing about ownership of one's own work?

Weir: It's just crowdsourcing it's a buzzword right now and so people like to use it and they use it when it's not always the correct word and then it carries with it a bunch of connotations that aren't always correct. Basically any time you end up ultimately working on something, how to put it? Any time you have a collective of strangers involved in your project in any way, people will use the word crowdsourcing and then that word carries with it the connotation that the bulk of the work was done by a distributed network of enthusiasts. The problem is that, another way to put it is the fact checking in The Martian was crowdsourced.

Mangu-Ward: And the fact checking in Artemis was not.

Weir: Was not. Yeah, because I couldn't, when a publisher gives you a bunch of money to write a book, they don't you want you posting it online for free.

Mangu-Ward: Ah, spoilsports.

Weir: Picky about that.

Mangu-Ward: You've described yourself as being a writer of hard science fiction and you can correct me if I'm wrong, this seems like an area of science fiction that's been a little neglected of late. We're all speculative fiction, alternate history, they let the ladies write it now so they put feelings in there sometimes. Where do you see yourself in that spectrum? What does it mean when the hard science in your science fiction is also economics?

Weir: Yes, I would say that it's lacking. There isn't nearly as much of it out there as I'd like because that's what I'd like to read. And I'd actually deep down I'd hoped that the success of The Martian would encourage copycats. I'd hoped that a bunch of other authors would go like, oh well, I'm going to write, I'm scientifically literate and I've got some story ideas, I'm going to write some scientifically accurate fiction. I thought there would be more books like that coming out which I was really looking forward to because I like reading them and it didn't happen. The good news is I have this little niche that I own by myself and that's probably going to be good for me going forward for a while. The bad news is I don't get to read any. I don't to get to be a consumer of it which I would really like to be. As for the other sci-fi that exists out there these days, I feel like it's been hijacked by this dystopia misery worlds where only teenagers can save us from the government and I'm just those are not the stories I like.

Mangu-Ward: But what if only teenagers can save us from the government?

Weir: Well, that would be a world I don't like. I guess.

Mangu-Ward: Talk a little bit about how the real world influenced what you write and what you're going to write. Your settings tend to be a little ways out but not way out in the distant, distant future. It feels like the private space industry in particular is moving fast. How do you build insurance into your stories to make sure the thing you wrote about isn't going to happen in a slightly different way next week?

Weir: There is no assuring that. The stuff is in my stories is definitely not going to happen next week or next year but it could happen 20 or 30 years. It could happen during my lifetime and if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. It's okay. No one's going to get really mad about it. People are like, oh yeah, Andy Weir wrote this book 30 years ago and it turns out he was ...

Mangu-Ward: That would put you in the company of literally all science fiction authors ever, I suppose.

Weir: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Mangu-Ward: If you had to bet on the current players in the private space sector, would you place a bet? Are you more of the Elon Musk guy or a Jeff Bezos guy? Do you have a prediction about what that market looks like by the time the events of your book come around?

Weir: It's funny, I don't know. The events in my book have a fictional company that is really dominating the space industry. That's a tough call. So what? SpaceX has really turned the whole industry on its ear by for the first time really forcing everybody to be profit minded and economizing the cost of putting freight into lower Earth orbit. They got this huge head start by just plowing ahead. But I don't think they're going to enjoy that lead forever. They've got, like I said, there's Jeff Bezos, but also there's other companies in the background quietly like United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and Boeing who are all working on their own spacecraft and now these are companies with a long history of figuring out how to turn profits. It's not going to be long before they go like, okay, how can we compete with SpaceX on the bottom line along with everything else? Some of them have not bothered. Some companies out there have said like, eh, we'll stick with our no bid government contracts and just ride it into the ground.

Mangu-Ward: Possibly literally.

Weir: No, not quite. But basically saying, we're just going to keep making ludicrously overpriced boosters until the day that NASA says, all right there's so much political pressure for us to not spend 50 times as much as we do. They're eventually going to go over. Some companies have done the math and said like, "No, we'll make more money this way. Just by staying with the old model." But other companies are like, "Well, we might end up making more money in the slightly longer term by trying to drive down the price." It may end up being that the actions of SpaceX have spurred real competition but the winners in the future could be anybody. Could be some well established company.

Mangu-Ward: When I first started covering the private space industry probably about 10 years ago, one thing that struck me was that you would go to these conferences and there would be a bunch of people who really wanted to fight about the right mix of rocket fuel. What's the perfect formula for optimal rocket fuel but recognized they actually should be trying to build business models around that rocket fuel. And mostly seem to be doing it reluctantly and now we have this wave of business men who think space is cool and are paying somebody else to figure out the rocket fuel. Seems like that's probably where we're headed in the long run but we had the mythology in our country of technologists who become businessmen. Do you think that that's, how does that sit against the space industry right now?

Weir: I think that technologists who become businessmen are really famous because you think of, it's a really, it's a story people are interested in. It's a story, it's like, oh, this guy started a company in his garage and now he's Bill Gates. People like that story. People are far less interested in the guy who has a lot of good of business acumen and hired the right people to build up a company and got investors and it worked. That's a story that's much less exciting and so you don't hear about those people as often. But I suspect the commercial space industry will be really driven by those people. Or any industry is eventually driven by the people who figure out how to turn a profit off of it.

Mangu-Ward: People also like the story of technologist who become novelist, I guess.

Weir: I guess so. Yes, they do. I found a way to turn a profit off of it, I guess.

Mangu-Ward: What, in your mind, is the future of NASA? You've eluded to there still are these big government contracts. There's the SLS which is arguably at this point, basically a pork project. The Senate launch system I've heard it called. That's something that with the right leadership, NASA could chose to set aside and move in the direction of a contracting model. They have to some extent. What would your NASA look like in an ideal world?

Weir: Low Earth orbit should be NASA's floor. They shouldn't be doing anything below that. That's my opinion. I believe they should contract out literally all of their launches. And that they should focus on making space stations, spacecraft, exploratory vessels, sending asteroid returns missions, manned Mars missions, going back to the Moon. Whatever they want to do, low Earth orbit should be the floor. Yes, I'm very much an opponent of SLS, I don't think it's, I don't like it. In the same way that if you are the hostess company and you manufacture Twinkies, you don't also manufacture trucks to take the Twinkies to the grocery stores. You hire a trucking company to take your Twinkies to grocery stores. That my opinion. That's what my quote, unquote, my NASA would look like.

That having been said, you always need to remember there are harsh political realities about NASA. It's about $20 billion a year budget which is small compared to a lot of other agencies but it's still an awful lot of money and that money gets spread out around a bunch of districts by them continuing to be the old NASA they've always been. Making changes to their core competencies wouldn't just mean like, oh, now we get to spend $20 billion on space stations and much, much less money or whatever, we get to spend a bunch more money on space stations and less money on getting them up into space because we have competition in bids and stuff. What it means is shutting down rocket assembly plants and making people at Marshal Space Flight Center lose their jobs and so on. That is where the political realities come in. If you want to make changes of that magnitude to NASA, some of those are going to be really, really unpopular. Not just within the space industry but also within every one of those districts that you're affecting.

Mangu-Ward: You just described a pretty brisk gale of creative destruction blowing through NASA there but I bet they like you over there. Have you been a NASA consultant? If so, what have you ...

Weir: Consultant, no.

Mangu-Ward: I know that's a formal dom. Has NASA brought you in to chat with any of their guys? And if so, do you say that to their faces, man?

Weir: Yeah. They know my opinion. Externally NASA is very unified but internally that's also a subject of massive debate among them. And they don't like it. Another thing that is just a huge argument going on in NASA is the details of planetary protection which is how sterile do our Mars probes have to be? How likely is it that Earth life would infect Mars and could then displace or affect native Mars life if any such bacteria or whatever exists? That's another big thing that is a huge war going on inside NASA but no one talks about it outside because they present a united front. I don't consult NASA, there's nothing NASA's going to learn from me. They bring me out 'cause they're like, hey, we liked your book. Hey, here's some tours of Johnson Space Center. But it's not like they talk to me to think about what their policies should be.

Mangu-Ward: Should they?

Weir: No, probably not. I'm an enthusiast, I'm not an expert. Those guys and gals know so much more than I ever will about this stuff. All I can do is offer my own personal opinion.

Mangu-Ward: What do you think about the planetary protection stuff? I've read some about it, we've covered it a little bit at Reason. It depends a lot on the empirical realities in part. What actually happens when we start shipping dust and germs back and forth? But it also is just a metaphor for our environmental debate here on Earth. Is that something you've thought about, tackling either in fiction and or what do you just think about it?

Weir: No, not in fiction because again, I never put any sort of political stance, I never have any ax to grind in my stories. I never have a moral to my stories, I just want them to flow. And I don't want you to be able to predict how they're going to end. That's like if you know the author feels strongly about something then you know that the universe of the book will conspire to validate his opinion. I don't want that to happen. I don't want my readers to be able to predict any aspect of my stories. So I don't put my own views in there. But in terms of planetary protection, yes I'm against it. Also I'm somewhat of a pessimist. I think there is no life whatsoever on Mars. I think it's completely sterile. I think it's like the Moon. However, if it weren't then you'd have to ask, okay, well that's great, but first off let me tell you why I think it's sterile.

Let's say you were aliens and you wanted to come to Earth and figure out if there's any Earth life. Okay, and let's say however you can only sample one handful of Earth, your probe can only sample a handful of Earth. Anywhere on Earth that you grab a handful of anything, it's going to be teeming with life. If grab a handful of seawater, if you grab a handful of sand from the Sahara, ice from Antarctica and just dirt from anywhere, you're going to find microbial life everywhere in it. It's absolutely littered with it. Life is very, very good at adapting to all the environments it can possibly reach. I believe that if a planet life anywhere, it's going to have life everywhere. The fact that we have never found any evidence of life at all anywhere on Mars with any of our probes, leads me to believe that there's never been any. 'Cause otherwise it would have gotten to the whole planet. The whole planet would be just riddled with it. I don't think there's any life on Mars.

But let's say there is. Then you ask yourself, okay, can life on Earth survive the trip to Mars in just some probe? It's not like an atmosphere or a life support system for it. It's just like can this bacteria survive the trip to Mars? I say there's very, very little that can survive that trip. There's tardigrades and few other forms of life that actually can survive that long periods in a vacuum and radiation. Okay, great. Can those things then function and eat and reproduce on the surface of Mars in the native environment of Mars? I say no. I don't believe there's anything comfortable operating at minus 18 C and .1, .5%, one half of one percent of Earth's atmospheric pressure in world completely devoid of anything other than the occasional bit of ice.

Okay, but let's say that is true. Let's say that is true. Okay, do you think that that life form that Earth invasive Earth life would then be better at breeding and surviving in Mars' native environment than the native life on Mars? Seems really unlikely to me. But okay, let's say that is true then my next question is, would it take over the whole planet or would there just be this little area of contagion? Mars is a planet. If you need surgery in New York, you don't need to sterilize all the bathrooms in Bangladesh. It is a planet, it's large. And then the final question is if you don't believe in all of that, if you believe that all of those, if you still believe there's risk beyond that, do you think the Soviets adequately sterilize their probes? I don't.

Mangu-Ward: Just playing the odds there.

Weir: Yeah. And then in the end do you plan on sending humans because if you do, forget it.

Mangu-Ward: Right.

Weir: We're just disgusting bags of bacteria that we're just spewing it out in all directions.

Mangu-Ward: I like it that you started that with I describe as a pessimist. And wound up with we're all disgusting bags of bacteria. We've got the Andy Weir world view here.

Weir: Yeah, optimist. I'm an optimist. But from a planetary protection point of view, putting a human somewhere is the worst thing you can do. And so are we just going to say, "No humans on Mars on the off chance it might have life." No, of course not.

Mangu-Ward: Elon Musk is famous for saying that he was born on Earth and he hopes to dies on Mars, hopefully not on the point of impact.

Weir: But not on impact.

Mangu-Ward: Is that your hope as well?

Weir: No, I really don't care Elon Musk dies.

Mangu-Ward: All right, touche.

Weir: No, not at all, smart ass. I'm a smart ass. No, I do not want to leave Earth. I write about great people, I'm not one of them. I stay here. I'd love for humanity to go out and explore the planets and do all sorts of cool stuff and I'll just root for them from the sidelines.

Mangu-Ward: You are not not too keen on flying as you have said in other venues but you've talked about the analogy to the early days of civil aeronautics as a way of understanding the private space industry. This lines up perfectly with that, first of all, your view as just articulated. Can you talk a little bit about that universe? The 19 teens and 20s in the United States and around the world, why that looks to you like the private space industry looks now or could look like those things?

Weir: It all comes down to affordability. Aeronautics, one of the greatest things, not talking about the teens and stuff but getting a little further forward in time, during the heyday when the technology of aeronautics really started to grow rapidly, just after World War II, you started getting commercial jet aircraft travel and just the technological advancements that we've seen since the 1950s in aeronautics has been just mind boggling and it's because there's just so much money to be made by working it out. I honestly think that the greatest thing that ever happened to aeronautical engineering was the spiteful and extremely bitter competition between Boeing and Airbus. The reason that was so effective is because they had no choice but to compete. The whole world over, they need passenger aircraft and they don't care whether they buy it from Boeing or Airbus. They're like, the Chinese commercial airline industry will buy Boeing planes or Airbus planes. They don't care. They want whatever they think is best.

Also another huge advantage is that they are in different governments. After a certain point when companies become really, really big as both Boeing and Airbus are, it becomes more economical to direct your money toward affecting policy to favor your company over your opponents than it is in directing it into making better products. The fact that they're in different countries that cannot affect each other's laws, has been just forced them into the purest form of competition for customers and that honestly is why I think we have such incredible aircraft now. And if you compare the last 50 years of progress in aeronautical engineering to the last 50 years of progress in spacecraft engineering, there's no comparison. It's ludicrous. It's generation after generation of better and better aircraft just keep rolling out of the factories and space travel has not changed that much.

Mangu-Ward: And in fact, arguably even gone a bit backwards from the government production perspective at least with the retirement of the shuttle, right?

Weir: Well yeah, but the shuttle was horribly out of date anyway. I guarantee you if the shuttle were some sort of profitable enterprise that was being run by a private entity, I assure you they would have had the next thing ready before they retired the last thing. It's not like Boeing went like, oh yeah, we made the 747 and then we then we just stopped working on stuff.

Mangu-Ward: Just in Artemis just to wrap up here, a big part of the industry that you describe is tourism. It's a tourism based economy in large part. Space tourism has been the buzzword in the private space industry for as long as it's existed in real life here. It seems like the appeal is obvious. Hop on a rocket, go to space, see what it's like up there. What do you think the grimiest reality of space tourism will be? It's not going to be all glorious shining cities on the Moon. What's the disappointment or what the gross human side of it?

Weir: I can only talk about Artemis which is my model for how human. First off, it's still very expensive. It's about, to have a two week vacation on the Moon, it'll cost you about $70,000 in 2015 dollars. It's within reach of the middle class but they really have to reach. It's like get a second mortgage thing. You have to really want it. In exchange for that, you get to spend a couple of weeks on the Moon, you get to go look at the Apollo 11 landing site, you get to play in 1/6th gravity. It's the sort of thing that a lot of people would pay for.

The grimiest worst part though, I would say, is the food. Importing food from Earth is expensive so if you're willing to fork over the cash to have, to eat imported food from Earth, then sure, you can have fairly quality meals. But if you're low on money, if you want to eat local food, you're eating algae. Basically chlorella algae, it can be grown in vats very quickly. It's extremely nutritious, it's very good for humans. It has literally everything you need. All the vitamins, all the proteins, the sugars, everything. I've tasted some of this, it's awful.

Mangu-Ward: Your characters call it gunk for a good reason.

Weir: They call it gunk. The idea is that my characters then also have flavorants, extracts that they import from Earth but a bottle of extract, pretty much everyone has a bottle of vanilla extract in their cabinet somewhere that they've had for eight years. You just, extracts last a long, long time. Importing that wouldn't be too expensive and you put it in your gunk to make it taste like oatmeal or spareribs. Whatever flavor you like.

Mangu-Ward: Hopefully not both at once.

Weir: Within the story it's actually said that the best flavors are flavors that people just made up. Like it's the ones that are actually trying to simulate existing food, generally don't work. The best ones are like Myrtle Goldstein's combination number three which apparently tastes pretty good. Or at least as it's described in the book.

Mangu-Ward: There's also sex tourism for us to look forward to hopefully.

Weir: Yes. Sex tourism because the mechanics of sex rely, if you think about it, rely on gravity in a lot of ways. And so the idea is that a couple could go to the moon and they, no matter how long they've been together, they have to rediscover sex together by going to the Moon and that could be a cool thing for people. You've been with someone for 20 years and well now you get to experiment with each other, it's brand new again.

Mangu-Ward: You know who's actually quite keen this idea? Is Newt Gingrich. He's been talking for years about space sex and how honeymoons in space are going to be awesome.

Weir: Well thank you for putting the image in my mind of Newt Gingrich having low gravity sex.

Mangu-Ward: That was my gift to you.

Weir: Thank you.

Mangu-Ward: Thank you so much.

Weir: Appreciate that.

Mangu-Ward: For joining me at The Reason podcast and I am sorry that I made you think of Newt Gingrich in that way. Ladies and gentlemen, Andy Weir. Thank you.

Weir: Thank you.

Photo Credit: Amazon

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I like to say one thing we've learned from The Phantom Menace is don't start a story with a dissertation of economics.

    The average moviegoer doesn't have the midichlorians to understand basic economics and how Asian aliens are dicks.

  • josh||

    "how Asian aliens are dicks"

    Yes, but small dicks.

  • John||

    The economics of living in space or the moon are very problematic. If a settlement is ever going to last, it has to justify its existence. That means it either produces everything it needs there and thus does not need to produce anything of value back to earth or it has to produce something of value to be able to trade with earth for the things it can't produce there. If you can't do that, then it becomes just a national vanity project and eventually, the public loses interest in funding it.

    So the question is how does one do that. I think it is going to be very difficult to produce everything you need forever on the moon or mars. I also don't see how you produce anything of value there that would justify the cost of its transport back to earth. Sure, scientific data is something of value. But that leaves the moon and mars looking a bit like Antarctica which a few long-term scientific settlements and not much else.

    If we are ever going to live in space in large numbers, we will have to develop interstellar travel and find another habitable planet similar to earth. I don't see how humans ever live outside of earth in this solar system in large numbers.

  • ||

    You are a buzzkill, John. Unfortunately you are also probably correct.

    The only things I have ever heard that would be economically justifiable are products that require zero gravity manufacturing. IIRC, certain kinds of chemicals/pharmceuticals or alloys. For instance, aluminum/lead alloys could only be produced in commercial quantities in zero-g.

    So, perhaps a lunar colony is started for pure research (a lunar observatory wouldn't have to worry about air pollution or other environmental effects). A small base grows around the telescope to support the astronomers. Once established, the existing infrastructure is used to create zero-g factories. Then PROFIT!!!

  • John||

    The thing about zero-G manufacturing is that it likely can best be done by robots. If you can make a robot that can do it, you don't have to mess with all of the expense associated with life support for humans. I can see zero-G manufacturing being a thing. If it does, though, it will be robots doing it and probably very few or maybe no any humans involved except for sending instructions up from the earth.

  • John||

    Why couldn't a Moon colony produce something of value?

    Because to be of "value" would mean that it would have to pay for the cost of supporting the life on the Moon and transporting it to earth. So what exactly can the Moon make there and transport to earth that can't be made cheaper and easier here? If you have an answer to that question, then you have a viable moon colony. But I have yet to hear anyone with an answer to that.

    I guess places like Japan, Hong Kong, or Singapore could never be economically successful?

    You don't need life support to live in those places. How successful is Antarctica? It is about a thousand times more expensive and difficult to live on the moon than it is to live in Antarctica. And about a thousand times more difficult to live in Antartica than it is in Hong Kong. So we are talking about something that is a million times harder than building Hong Kong.

    I think recently they have shown there is water under the surface). The Moon is made from the same stuff as the Earth.

    Sure but that doesn't mean there is everything you need to live there or that there is anything about the stuff there that justifies going and getting it as opposed to just using what we have here. If you want to have a viable moon colony, you need to find something of value on the moon that doesn't exist here. Good luck.

  • ||

    John is correct again (sigh). I read somewhere about the economics of space based manufacturing and the space shuttle. If you took a pound of lead into orbit and turned it into gold, you would still lose money on the operation. Getting stuff into space is expensive.

    Now this article was written before the advent of SpaceX and reusable launchers, so the costs of spaceflight are now decreasing.

    They only thing I can think of that could be produced on the moon economically would be something that couldn't be manufactured on earth. Perhaps something that needed to be produced in a hard vacuum (or exposed to a hard vacuum).

  • AlmightyJB||

    Zero gravity sex would be interesting.

  • josh||

    It's classified, but this is actually the basis for NASA's existence. We just told the public it was about beating the Russians.

  • Azathoth!!||

    It's very strange for a fan of hard scifi to say something like this--

    People are far less interested in the guy who has a lot of good of business acumen and hired the right people to build up a company and got investors and it worked. That's a story that's much less exciting and so you don't hear about those people as often.

    Because that's D.D.Harriman. And it was a great story. The Man Who Sold the Moon. By Heinlein.

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