So it seems you’re a science geek. You list space travel, orbital dynamics, relativistic physics, astronomy, and the history of manned spaceflight among your interests. How did you incorporate these passions into your debut novel The Martian?
Those interests allowed me to come up with the story in the first place. I love reading up on current space research. At some point I came up with the idea of an astronaut stranded on Mars. The more I worked on it, the more I realized I had accidentally spent my life researching for this story. Early on, I decided that I would be as scientifically accurate as possible. To a nerd like me, working out all the math and physics for astronaut Mark Watney’s problems and solutions was fun.
In one sentence, tell us what your novel is all about.
It’s the story of an astronaut trying to survive after being accidentally left behind on Mars.
Explain how the science in The Martian is true to life.
The basic structure of the Mars program in the book is very similar to a plan called “Mars Direct” (though I made changes here and there). It’s the most likely way that we will have our first Mars mission in real life. All the facts about Mars are accurate, as well as the physics of space travel the story presents. I even calculated the various orbital paths involved in the story, which required me to write my own software to track constant-thrust trajectories.
Did you take any liberties with the science when writing the novel?
Yes, I did. The sandstorm at the beginning of the book couldn’t possibly happen. In reality, the air on Mars is too thin to cause any damage, even when it’s going 150km/h. It would feel about as strong as a gentle breeze. I had an alternate idea for how to strand Watney, where an MAV engine test goes horribly wrong, but I decided against it. It’s a man-vs-nature story and I wanted nature to get the first shot in. So I sacrificed accuracy for drama on that.
What inspired you to write The Martian?
I was thinking about how best to do a manned Mars mission. As the plan got more detailed, I started imagining what it would be like for the astronauts. Naturally, when designing a mission, you think up disaster scenarios and how likely the crew would be to survive. That’s when I started to realize this had real story potential.
Are you an advocate for a manned mission to Mars? Are you hopeful we’ll actually make it out there sometime soon?
Of course I’m a huge fan of space travel, manned and unmanned. I would love to see people land on Mars in my lifetime. However, do I think it will actually happen? I’m not sure. Unlike the 1960s, we’re not in a race with anyone to get there, so it’s not a priority. Also, computer and robotics technologies are leaps and bounds better than they were during the days of Apollo. So logically, you have to ask why we would risk human lives rather than just make better robots. Still, it would be awesome, and maybe that’s reason enough.
Do you have anything in common with your wise-cracking hero Mark Watney?
I’m the same level of smart-ass as he is. It was a really easy book to write; I just had him say what I would say. However, he’s smarter than I am and considerably more brave.
In The Martian, Watney has access to his crewmates digital entertainment on Mars, including TV episodes of Three’s Company, a variety of Beatles songs, and digital books including The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Any reason you chose to work those specific examples into the novel?
It’s a selection of things I loved when I was growing up.
You’re stranded on Mars and you can only take one book with you. What is it?
It’s always hard to pick one “favorite book.” Growing up, I loved early Heinlein books most of all. So if I had to pick one, I’d go with Tunnel in the Sky. I do love a good survival story.
How long do you think you’d last if you were left in Watney’s position?
Not long at all. I don’t know how to grow crops, nor how to jury-rig the solutions he came up with. It’s a lot easier to write about an ordeal than it is to experience it.
You have the chance to meet any astronaut living or dead: Who is it and why?
John Young. He is the quintessential astronaut. Competent, fearless, highly intelligent, and seemingly immune to stress. When Apollo 16 launched, his heart rate never got higher than 70. Most astronauts spike to at least 120 during launches.
Watney seems to be able to maneuver his way around some pretty major problems with a little duct tape and ingenuity! So he’s a bit like MacGyver in that way. Did you watch the show as a kid? Any favorite episodes?
Indeed I did! I loved that show. My favorite episode was the one where engineering students had a barricade contest.
How did you feel when your original, self-published version of The Martian became a phenomenon online? Were you expecting the overwhelmingly positive reception the book received?
I had no idea it was going to do so well. The story had been available for free on my website for months and I assumed anyone who wanted to read it had already read it. A few readers had requested I post a Kindle version because it’s easier to download that way. So I went ahead and did it, setting the price to the minimum Amazon would allow. As it sold more and more copies, I just watched in awe.
The Martian will be making its big screen debut October 2 with Ridley Scott directing and Matt Damon starring as Watney. Did you ever imagine your self-published book would one day become a major motion picture? What was your reaction when you first heard the news? How did you feel when you saw that first movie trailer hit the Internet?
Obviously, I’m thrilled about it! I daydreamed about The Martian becoming a movie someday, but I didn’t take the concept seriously. Even when Fox optioned the rights, I figured they were just making a minor speculative investment. Then the big names started to get involved and it suddenly got more real. Next thing I knew, they had a top-notch cast and one of the greatest directors of all time on the project. Every part of this publishing experience has been a dream come true!
Are you surprised that a book that’s so heavy on science has been able to attract such a huge readership? Why do you think it’s managed to do that?
Yes, definitely. When I wrote the book, I assumed the audience would be sciencedorks like me. I never imagined it would have mainstream appeal. I don’t know what I did right. I guess people liked Mark’s sense of humor.
Since The Martian was published, you’ve had some pretty incredible opportunities: you were invited to Houston for a tour of NASA, as well as a tour of JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab, managed by NASA and CalTech); you gave a talk at SpaceX; you will be giving a Summer Series talk at NASA AMES Research Center; and you will be visiting Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems this summer. What was it like visiting some of these places you’ve only dreamed or read about? What was the general response to The Martian among this core crowd of scientists, engineers, and NASA astronauts?
They’ve been the highlights of my life. I got to see so much cool stuff! The NASA and JPL folks were extremely happy with the book and let me know it. I think they like how accurate it is to real science. And, of course, it portrays them in a very positive light, so I’m guessing they like that a lot, too.
How do you feel about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and do you think enough kids are being attracted to those fields? Have you heard from any kids or teachers?
I’m a big fan of STEM projects. I get lots of email from teachers who use The Martian as a study aide. It gets kids interested in math and science.
What are the three coolest things that have happened to you since The Martian came out?
I got to visit Johnson Space Center, I got to visit JPL, and I got to hang out with Adam Savage for an afternoon!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on my next book now. It’s more of a traditional sci-fi novel with aliens, faster-than-light travel, and telepaths, etc.