Skip to main content

How to survive on Mars

By Richard Galant, CNN
March 15, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1827 GMT (0227 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT