With the runaway success of his novel The Martian, author Andy Weir clearly tapped into a powerful space-flavored zeitgeist. The idea behind the plot isn’t new—an astronaut gets marooned on an alien world and hijinks ensue—but Weir’s approach is. His character mixes in-your-face wit with unflinching science to figure out how to survive and get home. The public ate it up: Weir’s book debuted at the number 12 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and Matt Damon signed on to play the lead in the Oscar-nominated movie adaptation.
NASA and the whole space gang have some serious pop-culture momentum. It’s no wonder as advances in technology are making space ever more accessible. Even as NASA continues to evolve ion engines, which shoot out electrically charged particles at speeds of up to 90,000 miles per hour to propel a spacecraft through the cosmos, it’s also funding research into exploring the solar system with lightweight sensors and cameras mounted on wafer-sized probes, propelled efficiently with photons to a fraction of the speed of light. At the same time the Mars rover Curiosity continues to send back new images and analysis of our nearest neighbor, scientists are also thinking about ways to explore other planets, like a submarine to explore the methane seas of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Virgin Galactic continues to work towards commercial space flights.
Ahead of his April 23 appearance at Smithsonian magazine’s Future is Here Festival, Weir shared some of his thoughts on the future of space travel and details about his upcoming novel set on the moon.
A 2015 Pew survey showed that NASA has a 68 percent favorability rating, second only to the Centers for Disease Control’s 70 percent. How do NASA and the science community sustain this wave of public support?
Well, for starters, NASA doesn’t really do anything people disapprove of. So you can expect them to have a high approval rating in general. The only thing people don’t like about NASA is its cost. No one grumbles about the moral implications of sending people into space. As a society, we all pretty much think that’s awesome. I think the main thing driving renewed interest in space is the commercial side. Companies like Virgin and SpaceX are making space travel a business, and that brings us closer to middle-class Americans being able to afford a trip to space.
Exactly. The “space program” no longer consists just of NASA, but also includes many private companies and international agencies. How has privatization changed the space game?
Commercial space travel is the path forward. By introducing genuine competition into the industry, prices can be brought down to much more reasonable levels. Already, SpaceX has driven prices down so much that other booster companies have had to radically adjust their business models to keep up and try to be competitive. The cheaper boosters [engines to launch spacecraft into orbit] get, the more NASA will be able to do with their budget.
Which Mars exploration or space-travel projects have your attention right now?
I know I keep beating the same drum over and over, but I think the best technology for Mars missions is cheaper boosters. Getting stuff from Earth’s surface to Earth’s orbit is by far the most expensive part of space travel. If that price is driven down, Mars missions become a reality.
As for technological advancements outside the arena of boosters, we have three major hurdles to overcome. First, better propulsion, either ion drives or VASIMR [Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket], something with a much better specific impulse than chemical propellant.
We need to abandon the idea of long-term zero-g habitation. It doesn’t work. There’s no way we’d be able to have astronauts spend eight months in zero-g and then be effective on Mars’s gravity the day they land. We need to accept this and move on. It’s time for us to seriously work on space stations with artificial gravity. Make them spin.
Then there’s inflatable spacecraft. We have to overcome the tyranny of the booster’s diameter. As it is, no space station component can be larger than the booster that sent it up. With a soft-sided hull, it could be as big as we wanted.
Though Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan have been household names for decades, today we have “celebrity scientists” like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene and Michio Kaku. How has science become a pop-culture phenomenon?
I think a lot of it has to do with the general education level of the public. The average American now knows a hell of a lot more about science than they did a generation ago. The internet, easy access to information and improving education systems have made this a reality. People now realize how much science drives their quality of life, and it demands attention.
What, in your opinion, has made even really tough science more accessible to the general public—to the point that even gravitational waves dominated the news cycle for a full week?
It’s because of this general improvement in public awareness and education. When you know about something, you’re curious about how that knowledge increases and changes over time.
Your next book will have a woman as the central character. Given that “gender wars” in science fields is still a contentious topic, why did you decide to go with a lady lead? What kinds of challenges does your protagonist face, and does her gender play any role in those challenges?
I don’t take part in any political debates. So I’m certainly not trying to make a point by having a female lead. She’s just a character I came up with that I thought was cool, so she’s the lead.
The book is another scientifically accurate story. The main character is a low-level criminal in a city on the moon. Her challenges are a mix of technical/scientific problems, as well as juggling personal interactions—staying a step ahead of the local police, working with shady and dangerous people to do illegal things.
She doesn’t encounter any distinctly “female” challenges. There’s no love plot. And the story takes place in a future society where there is practically no sexism.
What do you think is driving innovation today?
Profit motive. Same as it’s always been. Look at the innovations in the airline industry over the last 50 years and compare them to the innovations in the space industry. There’s no comparison. Aircraft have improved by leaps and bounds, while spacecraft have barely changed. What’s the difference? People make billions of dollars by inventing better aircraft.
Smithsonian magazine's "Future is Here" festival will be held April 22-24, 2016, at Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C. Exhilarating and visionary, the event will provide an eye-opening look into the near and far future, where science meets science fiction.