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The Martian author Andy Weir on Mars Colonization, Commercial Space Travel, and Going From Programmer to Best-Selling Author

Q&A with the man who wrote the book behind the upcoming Hollywood film starring Matt Damon.

"I want us to have a self-sufficient population somewhere other than Earth because 25 years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up," says Andy Weir, author of the best-selling novel The Martian, which tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney as he struggles to survive alone on Mars after he’s mistakenly left for dead in the wake of a botched mission. It's the basis for the upcoming Hollywood film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, which hits theaters this weekend.

Weir was working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley when he began writing The Martian in serial form and posting it for free on his personal website for an audience consisting of what he describes as a few thousand "hardcore science dorks." Five years later, he had a book deal with Crown Publishing and a film option from 20th Century Fox.

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Weir to talk about his amazing journey from programmer to best-selling author, the challenges of writing a scientifically accurate space novel, and his thoughts on the future of real-life space travel. 

Approximately 15 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Shot by Paul Detrick and Alexis Garcia. Music by Lee Rosevere.

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  • bacon-magic||

    I posted in the pm comments yesterday about colonizing Mars and someone(sorry I forgot name) mentioned the magnetosphere missing from Mars being a problem. I said "throw asteroids at Mars" as an answer half joking...then I thought about it, googled it(yes, not in depth research but hey it's not like I'm a scientist or anything) and turns out: several sites have throwing asteroids to get Mars spinning and/or heating up the core. Who knew that all the rocks we have thrown at animals, each other, & old people's windows would prepare us for getting off this planet?!?

  • gaoxiaen||

    NEEDZ MOAR SNOWBALLS!

  • BearOdinson||

    As far as Mars spinning, trying to increase the angular momentum of a planet would take a ridiculous amount of energy. Are we going to go millions of miles farther to the asteroid belt, strap every rocket engine we have ever made to an asteroid and try to steer to Mars and have it impact at just the right angle?
    And "heating up the core?" Fuck me. The core is several thousand miles deep. Contrary to some really bad movies, this is just plain impossible.
    I hope you are joking, because otherwise this is pretty stupid.

  • VicRattlehead||

    Klimate Katastorphe!!!!!! must have been because of icky korporate profits....

  • Kevin Sorbos Manful Locks||

    Excuse me, I watched "The Core," and can confirm that it is quite easy to reach a planetary core.

  • John L.||

    getting the core going again would probably take so much force and result in so much seismic activity that Mars would be even less habitable than it is now for thousands of years.

    But it turns out that the missing magnetosphere isn't a fatal problem. Martian atmospheric escape is estimated to be in the hundreds of mbars over 3.5 billion years. Assuming the capability to increase the atmospheric pressure to levels which can be survived without pressure suits (heating up the dry ice, burning up ice comets in the atmosphere), then maintaining the atmosphere would be trivial by comparison.

    The newly created atmosphere would block most of but not all of harmful radiation. We could (possibly, this is theoretical technology) do the rest with high-temperature
    superconducting (HTS) cables.

    http://www.nifs.ac.jp/report/NIFS-886.pdf

  • Agammamon||

    ARGLEBARGLE

    You can change the angular momentum of Mars without direct contact using the Oberth Effect (powered)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oberth_effect

    Or gravitational slingshot (unpowered)

    In any case - if you're going to go through the effort of increasing rotational velocity (and there's no particular reason to do this with Mars - you don't *need* the planet to rotate once every 24 hours and there's no other benefit to this) you can do it by taking the *massive* amount of water you'll need to import, and tossing it at the planet bit by bit in the right direction. Keep impacting tangentially in the direction of rotation and you'll speed up that rotation.

    Or just strap the rockets to a sufficiently large mass of rock and fire them up.

    Any of that will cause the core to heat up - and the comet ice impacting has the added benefit of adding water to a place that doesn't have much.

  • Agammamon||

    Mars is kiddy stuff anyway.

    Orbital habitats are the way to go. Even better if you can strap an engine on them and *move* to where you want to be, when you want to be there.

    But if you're going to go insist on living on the surface of a large rock - stick a large fusion torch inside one of the gas giants. One end facing the core, one end facing away. Thrusts from both sides, balanced to keep it floating. Sucks up fuel from the atmosphere. Steer *very* carefully and plan your maneuvers centuries in advance.

    As it moves, gravitational attraction pulls along the moons and keeps them in orbit. Colonize the moons

    Now you have the largest starship in existence. Time to go sightseeing.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Right idea. Wrong application. Take several nickel iron asteroids and orbit them around Mars. Magnetize said asteroids and you have a multipolar.

  • ||

    I am wondering now that if you have enough asteroids orbiting and make a smallish moon from them and just adding that would cause enough friction from its gravitation pull changing Mars's angular momentum to heat up the core.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    No, and you don't need anything approaching that mass anyway. Sufficient tidal heating like that would require Mars to be orbiting something on the scale of Jupiter.

    And my final sentence got cropped. Should be "multipolar magnetic field," which would provide an adequate shield.

  • ||

    I said "throw asteroids at Mars"

    I mentioned this about a year ago. I think the problem is the total mass of all the asteroids in the solar system is not enough to really get it going....but yeah you don;t even need to hit Mars that hard with them if you added enough new mass (say the mass of the moon) to mars the friction of it settling would be enough to get things going.

    Anyway my new plan is to let about 4 million breeder reactors melt down and let those heat up the core.

  • BearOdinson||

    I love how people just say "throw asteroids". So we send a manned mission out to the asteroid belt, attach an "Orion" style engine loaded with hundreds of 100 kiloton nukes. Then steer the asteroid to the orbit of Mars. Just to possibly cause the angular momentum of the planet to change significantly enough to help cause the core to spin to create a magnetic field. All so we can then colonize a planet with NO APPRECIABLE resources (as far as we know).
    Wow. In all seriousness, if spreading humanity out is a prime concern, then we literally would be better off building generation ships that can reach a planet in the Goldilocks zone around a nearby star.

  • John Titor||

    All so we can then colonize a planet with NO APPRECIABLE resources (as far as we know).

    Well, given Mars' obvious volcanic history and its consistent cratering there's likely to be a great deal of mineral ore there.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Dear, Sweet God, no. Who said anything about Orion? If you want to move an asteroid you either want to use electric thrusters-assuming reaction mass constrained and a solid asteroid- or a gravity tug for the rubble piles.

    Mars is spinning fast enough. That is not the problem. The Earth has a magnetic field because of the spinning, MOLTEN outer core and not the solid inner core. That molten metal generates electric currents which generate a magnetic field through Ampere's Law. Mars lacks that. The "easiest" thing to do is to give it a man made field which can be accomplished by taking NiFe asteroids, magnetizing them with conducting loops, and orbiting them to create a multi-cusp shell around the planet.

  • ||

    Huh?

    Read this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_tractor

    Does not take much to move asteroids around just lots of math really.

    No idea what an "Orion" style engine is. I would use this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q.....m_thruster

  • Agammamon||

    Orion engine.

    Strong shield plate. Toss small nukes out the back. Ride the blast wave. Iiiiiiiiiiiiincredible amounts of acceleration. You could lift *thousands* of tons off the surface of the Earth easy.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion)

    As long as you could manage fallout.

    Wang Bullets are a refinement of the Orion surface launch idea - bury the nuke far enough that the blast won't reach the surface. Place your payload in a tube over the nuke. Detonate. Accelerate at several hundred to thousand gees - so make sure that shit is durable.

  • BearOdinson||

    The gravity tractor is a theoretical method to slightly move an object already near Earth so that it achieves a stable orbit around Earth. Orders of magnitude less than taking an asteroid out of the asteroid belt, and completely redirecting it towards Mars.
    Now perhaps there are some useful materials. You still have it to get it out of Mars' gravity well. Obviously at that point it's downhill toward Earth. Of course, you have to control the shipment once it gets close or you end up with a disaster back home. Or a clean miss and wasted energy. Not insurmountable obviously. But without some serious breakthroughs, not cost effective.

  • John Titor||

    Little late, but that was me. And the 'throw asteroids' issue mainly comes down to the massive cost and the extremely long time it would take to get any results. The 'spinning and/or heating up the core' plan is technically a way to create a magnetosphere. The problem is that requires massive amounts of energy, an understanding of geology we do not possess, technology we do not have and, of course, massive amounts of money (we're talking like more than the GDP of the world)

    Basically, if you have the technology to do that, you can probably already build planets better than Mars to colonize.

  • psCargile||

    If we just move the Ka'aba to Mars....

  • RFID||

    What we should be talking about is the stupid Matt Damon floating head movie poster that they made instead of something like the simple, effective book cover.

  • lap83||

    They should just have his name in bold and all caps

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    Yes. It makes it unclear as to who is actually starring in the movie: Matt Damon or his puppet from Team America.

  • biljay||

    NASA is just another example of Parkinson's Law at work.

  • The Last American Hero||

    You're on some shaky ground there.

    Oh, wait, wrong Parkinson. My bad.

  • Dread Pirate Roberts||

    I liked the book. Not sure if I'll bother watching the movie.

  • Slumbrew||

    I goddamn loved the book - been awhile since I was so into something. I'm hopeful they haven't fucked up the movie too much.

  • ||

    I too loved this book, and my copy has been read by about six other people in the last year who all across the board loved it as well. What surprises me about the positive response is that many of the people I lent the book to were not big readers nor particularly big sci-fi fans yet they universally agreed how captivating it is.

    From what I've seen in the trailers and clips it looks like they stayed close to the novel and Weir himself has stated that he is thrilled with the adaptation. And it pains me to say it, but Damon is the perfect choice for Whatney.

    Can't wait to see it.

  • MeatBorg||

    Also loved the book. From the movie reviews I've read, it sounds like they only changed a few things. Sounds like it'll be pretty true to the book. I'm looking forward to it.

  • MeatBorg||

    I love these interviews with the cool kid of the week when Reason tries to claim him as a (L/l)ibertarian. The interviewee almost always refuses to go along. Off the top of my head I remember similar questions in interviews with Adam Carolla and David Simon.

  • Slumbrew||

    Carolla - kind of, but falls back to "there should be a law..." way too often.

    Simon - no fuckin' way. Rarely have I seen a guy who's stated political beliefs are so at odds with the entertainment he creates. He's a statist - the fact that he still is after The Wire is mind-boggling.

  • Mrs. Premise||

    Every time I see the thumbnail for this video I think it's friggin' Radar O'Reilly.

  • ||

    I liked it better when MAAATT DAAAMOOON!!! was a selfish, evil asshole astronaut who jeopardized the continued existence of homo sapiens because he was a pussy.

  • Long Woodchippers||

    So there's hope for my novel-in-progress?

  • Martin Brock||

    The science fiction may be entertaining, but the scientism is still scientism. Any conceivable Martian colony, any time soon, would be entirely dependent upon the Earth, so it wouldn't decrease the likelihood of human extinction one iota, even if I thought that the species needed this insurance policy. Human colonization of Antarctica is more practical by orders of magnitude. If dispassionate science were the only consideration, we'd be discussing colonization of the Sahara or the interior of Australia or the ocean surface.

    Colonizing Mars is a fetish of science fiction fans and a Buck Rogers boondoggle for the space-industrial complex and its state sponsored apologists among celebrity "scientists" like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. [Bill Nye is a scientist? Really?] Despite the recent media fad acclaiming the new age of celebrity scientists, Einstein was on the cover of Time in 1938 and several times thereafter. No, science is not finally having it's day in the celebrity sun. It was never in the dark in the first place.

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