Q&A: The Martian author talks programming, getting to Mars

Andy Weir says he doubts NASA will meet deadline to get to Mars, and he's not going

andy weir the martian author

Andy Weir, author of the sci-fi novel The Martian, was a computer programmer before he became a writer. 

The author of the book The Martian, which opens as a movie on Friday, said he doubts NASA will reach its goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.

But he definitely wouldn't be brave enough to go himself.

The action-adventure movie stars Matt Damon as a U.S. astronaut who is left stranded on the Red Planet and must figure out how to survive until, and if, NASA returns to rescue him.

The movie is based on the book with the same title and written by Andy Weir, who was a programmer for Sandia National Laboratories, major research and development labs run by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Weir's father was a particle physicist and his mother an electrical engineer, so he was no stranger to science and technology. He grew up reading science fiction and was on a path to one day combine his knowledge of science, space exploration and writing.

In an interview with Computerworld, Weir talks about what he misses about programming, working at Sandia National Lab, why he couldn't get a job at NASA and what technology intrigues him the most right now.

And, yes, he also gives a few clues to his next book.

(Note: This interview was done before NASA announced it had found evidence of liquid water on the Martian surface.)

So what do you think about the movie? I like the movie. They did a fantastic job. It's pretty hectic and frantic in the run up to the movie.

How did you get into computer programming? I messed around with computers as a kid and I liked it… I started at Sandia at 15 and worked all through high school and then came back in the summers during college.

They had an outreach thing where they hired local teenagers to be lab assistants, cleaning test tubes and that kind of thing. The lab I was put in didn't need test tube cleaners but they needed some computer help. They wanted me to figure out how to program computers. They said, 'There's a computer and there's a book on how to program computers.' That's what began a 25-year career in computer programming.

It's hard to tell what my life would be like if I hadn't gone to Sandia. That's what gave me an edge in computer programming.

Do you miss programming? I miss having a team, and I miss going to work every morning and working with people. As a writer, I kind of sit in the corner with the occasional cat on my lap. That's about all the company I get these days.

Why did you leave programming to become a writer? I went into computer programming as a career. I enjoyed it a lot. I never had a problem with it. When it came time for me to quit my job and begin writing, it wasn't like 'take this job and shove it.' I liked my job.

I was a pretty tech-heavy guy but I always wanted to be a writer. I considered that as a career path, but I like eating regular meals… My primary dream was to be an author, so now that I've weaseled my way into that, I'm staying.

With your book's focus on NASA and space exploration, did you ever want to work at NASA? I had been interested in working at NASA but I dropped out of college because I ran out of money. And most of the positions at NASA required a college degree, so I just couldn't get there. I talk with people at NASA now. When I wrote the book, I didn't know anyone at NASA. But now I do. When I have any questions, now I have someone to call.

Why focus your first book on Mars? I think there's a big public interest in Mars and I'm not immune to it. It's the next place to go. It's the next thing on the list. It's just sitting there, taunting us. There's something deep down in human nature. We have a desire to go to places that nature tells us we can't go to.

NASA plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Do you think they'll make it? I think that's a bit optimistic. I think it'll be more like the 2050s… Realistically, I think the first manned mission to Mars will be a global effort. It will be a big, old global effort.

It's a very random guess but 2035, let's say, is just 20 years from now. How many advancements in space have we had in the last 20 years? We built the International Space Station and we canceled the shuttle program. I just don't see all the advances necessary for a manned Mars mission happening in the next 20 years.

What do you think about the discoveries the rovers have been making on Mars, finding evidence of water in the soil and other elements of life? Mars, we now know, has everything you need for life. It means if there was a human colony on Mars, they would be able to grow the colony without importing stuff from Earth. There's literally everything you need already there.

Do you personally want to go to Mars? Noooo. Hell no. I write about brave people. I'm not one of them.

What technology is interesting you right now? I'm really interested in ion drive technology. I think that's critical to interplanetary exploration. I'm also interested in inflatable habitats to have a lightweight hull with a lot of volume. It would be lightweight but solid and when you launch it, it doesn't have to be very big. That would reduce launch costs.

What is your next book about? Right now, I'm calling it Zhek. It's more of a traditional sci-fi with aliens and faster-than-light travel.

(Weir said hopes his next book will be published in late 2016.)

This story, "Q&A: The Martian author talks programming, getting to Mars " was originally published by Computerworld.

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