Skip to main content

How to survive on Mars

By Richard Galant, CNN
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Sat March 15, 2014
Scientists are baffled by the sudden appearance of a jelly doughnut-like rock that the Opportunity rover spotted in January 2014. These are images of the same location; the rock on the right was not there 12 days earlier. Researchers now believe the rover's wheels flicked the rock into its current spot. Scientists are baffled by the sudden appearance of a jelly doughnut-like rock that the Opportunity rover spotted in January 2014. These are images of the same location; the rock on the right was not there 12 days earlier. Researchers now believe the rover's wheels flicked the rock into its current spot.
HIDE CAPTION
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
A decade of discoveries on Mars
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andy Weir finds it hard to break into science fiction, and works as a programmer instead
  • He posted his book a chapter at a time; it finds audience, including scientists
  • "The Martian," now a bestseller and optioned for a film, tells of an astronaut stranded on Mars
  • Weir's book has gotten praise for technical accuracy and portrait of NASA bureaucracy

(CNN) -- Andy Weir had given up on writing as a career at the age of 26 after agents spurned his novel about a jewel heist involving aliens "on the Planet Sephalon."

After burning through severance checks from his layoff by AOL, he went back to work as a programmer in Silicon Valley.

Ten years later, in 2009, Weir decided to try writing again, but just as a hobby. Keeping his day job at a mobile phone software company, he started posting a new book on a personal website, chapter by chapter as he wrote it. This time, there were no aliens and no imaginary planet.

Instead he crafted a story, set a few decades in the future, about an astronaut who mistakenly gets left for dead on Mars when the other members of his crew are forced to make a quick escape from the effects of a devastating sandstorm.

This book found an audience. People starting following the story and it attracted scientists, including some who e-mailed Weir and offered suggestions to make the book's excursions into physics, chemistry and biology true to science.

Today Weir's "The Martian" is on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list and has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a potential movie, raising the question: How does a space nerd with no track record as a writer craft a compelling work of science fiction?

Andy Weir posted his sci-fi book on the Web, a chapter at a time.
Andy Weir posted his sci-fi book on the Web, a chapter at a time.

The book's hero, a cheeky astronaut named Mark Watney, possesses a self-reliance that enables him to jerry-rig NASA equipment in a suspenseful battle to eke out enough air, food and water to survive alone on Mars. In an interview with CNN, Weir said that his lead character is "smarter and braver than I am. The core personality that most people noticed -- that he's a massive smart ass -- that's basically my personality."

Watney finds ways to heal the injury that led his fellow astronauts to abandon him, thinking he was dead; to grow food in the "hab" module that is his home on Mars, to turn hydrogen and oxygen into water, to restore communication with NASA, and to drive his rover on the inhospitable Martian landscape far further than it was designed to go.

And yet critical life-support components keep failing, mishaps keep setting him back, and he keeps concluding that he's certainly about to die.

See what it's like to live on Mars

There's more than enough science and technology for the technically literate, and although he's never worked at NASA, Weir has gotten compliments for the accuracy of his portrait of an enormous bureaucracy's infighting as it struggles to save a man tens of millions of miles away. In the story, Watney's lonely struggle captures the attention of billions on Earth, even spawning a daily half-hour cable news program: "CNN's Mark Watney Report."

The book builds up the kind of narrative tension captured in the Oscar best-picture contender "Gravity," which Weir liked, even though it may have stretched the science. ("It doesn't have to be perfectly physically accurate to be entertaining. Nobody calls out the physics problems in 'Star Wars.'")

Yet accuracy is one of the things that gets cited in praise for Weir's book. Astronaut Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, has said the book "has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters, and fascinating technical accuracy," according to Crown, the book's publisher.

Now 41, Weir is the son of a particle physicist -- his father double-checked much of the science in "The Martian" -- and an engineer. He got hooked on Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and other classic science fiction writers by plucking their paperbacks from his father's shelf.

Predictably, Weir is fascinated by manned spaceflight and intrigued by the idea of a manned mission to Mars. But he's no fan of Mars One, the nonprofit that has gotten 200,000 people to express interest in being selected for a one-way trip to Mars, to take place in 2025.

Weir thinks the budget envisioned for the project is far too small and, "it would be basically a death sentence for the people who are going." He thinks a government-funded mission to Mars is far more likely but not for a long time. The after-effects suffered by astronauts on the International Space Station show the dangers of long-term space flight, he says. "There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that we need to invent" to make for safe travel to Mars. Near term, he looks forward to a Chinese manned mission to the moon.

As for NASA, Weir says he's "disappointed by the state of our manned spaceflight program," especially the lack of a vehicle to replace the space shuttle. Would Weir want to fly on a space mission? "I am not a brave man ...I do not have the right stuff. Astronauts are really a cut above."

As a computer programmer, the closest Weir got to fame was as a member of the team that worked on the hit game "WarCraft2."

At his current job in Mountain View, California, Weir's bosses know the score, he says.

"I'm working on a pitch for my next novel right now, and if I get an advance, I'm going to quit and be a full time writer, which is the culmination of my dream coming true. I think I have to go sit in a coffee shop when I do that. And wear a neckerchief."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 6:12 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
updated 1:05 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
updated 12:55 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
updated 3:32 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
updated 8:41 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT