The Martian is a popular novel, written by an engineer and featuring one as its hero. As author Andy Weir looks toward the October release of the feature film version starring Matt Damon, NEF talks to him about the role storytelling plays in America’s engineering enterprise.
NEF: In our discussions with engineering leaders around the country, we hear a recurring theme that engineers don’t do a good job of telling their own story. As someone who tells engineering stories masterfully, what’s your take on how engineers could better communicate their value?
AW: Aww, thanks. I think the humor made digesting the technical info more palatable for the readers. So I guess my advice would be “be funny.”
NEF: The Martian is renowned for its technical depth and accuracy. What was your reaction when you discovered there was such a broad audience for that kind of approach?
AW: I was very surprised. I had no idea a mainstream audience would have any interest. When I wrote the story, I wrote it for nerds like me. I assumed technically-minded people would be the only ones who could be interested. I’m glad it worked out how it did, but I still don’t know what I did right.
NEF: How did you decide how much was too much, in terms of getting the engineering and technology details right?
AW: That was a fine line. There was scientific information I needed the reader to know, but I didn’t want the story to read like a Wikipedia article. There’s no easy answer there. It was all about balance.
NEF: How did you get the NASA culture right?
AW: I didn’t know anyone at NASA or in aerospace at all when I wrote the book. However, I had spent many years working for Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore. I figured one large, federally-funded research facility would be similar to another, so I projected my Sandia experience onto NASA. Turns out they were pretty similar.
NEF: What stage of production is the film in now? Have you seen a final cut yet? How well do you think the technical accuracy will translate to the big screen?
AW: I haven’t seen anything more than anyone else. I’ve seen the trailer and that’s it. Though I’ve seen the screenplay, and Ridley Scott has a reputation for not deviating much from scripts. So I have a good feeling for how the movie will be and I’m pretty happy about what I’ve seen.
The production has put a lot of effort into technical accuracy. They sent me a lot of questions during filming and I could tell from those questions they were really paying attention to technical detail. Also, they had expert consultants from both NASA and JPL.
NEF: What kind of feedback do you hear from actual engineers about some of the solutions you imagined in the Martian? Is there any particular part of the story that engineers like to discuss with you?
AW: I get very positive feedback from engineers. They’ll tell me where I messed up, of course (it’s how we engineers are!) but they’re still extremely happy at the level of accuracy found in the book. For the most part, they want to talk about places where I got the science wrong. But that’s how engineers have fun. And I have fun talking to them about it, too.
NEF: What other engineering stories are swirling around in your head?
AW: I’ve got some ideas, but I don’t want to tell people about them. I want to use them as plot points in future books.
NEF: The largest burden to human life in space is the psychological impact on the individual. Mark is extremely funny and sarcastic in the book. Did you intentionally give him these characteristics because you knew, from research, that he’d need these qualities for extended human space flight?
AW: Yes, definitely. And not just for their own psychological health, but for the cohesive social structure of the crew. If you’re going to have six people live in a small space for over a year, you better make sure you get people who will get along.
NEF: Where did you get information and architectures for the Hab on Mars?
AW: I can’t really cite a specific source. Many people have suggested inflatable habitats for Martian (and lunar) missions. It’s sort of a self-evident idea.
NEF: Have you had any interest from space organizations in your designs and conclusions?
AW: No. Remember, I’m just an enthusiast. The people who actually make these things are experts. There’s nothing I come up with that they haven’t already considered long ago. And for the most part, the tech in the book is stuff that either already exists or is being actively researched.
NEF: When do you think we’ll be able to send people to Mars, if ever?
AW: I’m guessing around 2050. NASA says 2035, and I have no doubt that they could reach that goal if their funding isn’t cut. I just don’t have faith in Congress not to cut their funding.