The author of “The Martian.” Courtesy of Andy Weir

Andy Weir isn’t just living a publishing dream. He may have also saved the space program in the process.

I’ll try to defend that bold statement in a moment. But first, let’s look at the marvel that is “The Martian.”

This book — placed on my desk by a colleague who was certain I’d find it fascinating (correct) — is the tale of an American astronaut stranded on Mars. He has to use his wits, plus a lot of duct tape and back-of-the-envelope calculations, to stay alive in an extremely hostile environment. It’s Robinson Crusoe in a space suit.

Here’s what’s amazing: “The Martian” started out as a self-published story, serialized on Weir’s personal Web site. It was free for anyone to download.

Weir had made a little money working as a computer programmer at AOL in the late 1990s, cashing in his AOL stock at just the right moment and trying his hand at the literary life for a few years. But his first efforts weren’t very good, as he freely admits. He couldn’t get an agent, much less a publisher. He decided that his childhood ambition of being a professional writer was unrealistic, and he went back to computer programming.

But lots of people liked his story about “The Martian,” the wise-cracking, upbeat, fantastically resourceful but quite thoroughly stranded-on-a-desert-planet Mark Watney. Would Watney make it home, somehow, some way, against (literally) astronomical odds? It’s hard enough to get to Mars with advanced technology; how do you get home when you have no rocket?

The story unfolded as a serial over the course of several years. At the request of fans, Weir repackaged it in an e-reader version. Some readers struggled with the downloading process, so Weir then put it on sale at Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing, charging the required minimum of 99 cents per copy. More people downloaded it at that price than had ever downloaded it for free. They gave it positive reviews.

Then — breakthrough! — an agent contacted him. Then a publisher came calling — Random House decided it would make a good hardcover book. And then Hollywood got into the game. Weir signed contracts in the low to mid six figures for both the book contract and the movie rights, he told me.

The movie is scheduled to come out this fall, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, who, as in “Interstellar,” will play a stranded astronaut.

No, seriously, this really happened.

“It’s been awesome. I don’t know what to say. It’s like every writer’s dream come true. It’s like a fantasy,” Weir, 42, told me in a phone call from his home in Mountain View, Calif.

The book didn’t quite make it to number one on the bestseller list — only to number two. It was beat out by “Gone Girl,” he said.

“Really rough. Can’t get a break,” he said.

In recent months, NASA has apparently grasped that Weir has given the agency an enormous PR boost. He says the success of the book has allowed him to do “all these awesome nerdy things,” and he specifically mentioned touring the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a NASA facility operated under contract by Caltech) in Pasadena, and spending a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he got to meet real astronauts.

NASA has said, repeatedly, that its ultimate goal is a human mission to Mars, and that its human spaceflight programs steppingstones to that destination. But NASA doesn’t have the money to go to Mars now or anytime in the foreseeable future. (See my gumbo metaphor.)

Technically it might be doable in the 2030s, with international cooperation, but the hard decisions on funding and mission architecture would still have to be made by future administrations, congresses and the space agencies of partner nations. A report last summer from the National Research Council said NASA needs a major boost in funding to get to Mars even many years from now. The ongoing problem at the agency is that it has been asked to do too many things with too little money. Plus it does some things that seem a bit pointless: For example, the agency will spend tens of billions of dollars on a heavy-lift rocket and a crew capsule that have no obvious place to go in the next couple of decades.

“The Martian” doesn’t make a compelling political or budgetary case for sending humans to Mars. But it does make a human landing and perhaps even colonization of Mars seem plausible at the nuts-and-bolts, airlocks-and-solar-panels level. Sure, it would be wildly expensive, and there’s that whole EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) issue, but remember, the story is set in the future, where people are smarter, and the duct tape still just as reliable.

Weir’s book takes all the challenges of Mars and makes them part of the fun. How do you stay warm? You might have to dig up the radioactive hardware that you buried four kilometers away. How do you feed yourself? Growing boatloads of potatoes.

Yes, it’s difficult, but we’re a clever species. You can faintly hear John F. Kennedy saying, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” Damn the torpedoes — and the budget — full speed ahead!

Weir developed a computer program to calculate all the orbital trajectories of the spacecraft in his story. He did his math meticulously, and “The Martian” is like an advertisement for the importance of STEM education. The story strives to be factually accurate, with one major exception: The thin atmosphere on Mars would make the novel’s early windstorm much less destructive, indeed rather feeble. Weir said he decided to overlook that fact purely for dramatic purposes.

Weir is not exactly sure why his book did so well, but he has a notion. His protagonist is funny, and likeable. Mars less so.

“In a Man vs. Nature story you really empathize with the main character. You never root for Nature in a Man vs. Nature story.”

Should we go to Mars with human beings? He’d like to see that. But his book is apolitical.

“If my book helps us get closer to Mars in any way, then I’m really happy about that,” he said. “But of course that wasn’t the purpose. I never have any political message in my stories or my books. They exist solely to entertain the reader.”

He thinks he has a lot to learn about the mechanics of writing.

“I’m improving,” he said. “I think I’m pretty good at coming up with stories and plots. I think my characters tend to be thin. I need more depth. And I think the prose, the actual wordsmithing, is often clumsy. Hopefully, someday I will be actually good at it.”

Some of writing is artistry, but a lot of it is merely technique. A craft. What do you bet that Andy Weir figures it out?

Further reading:

My grousing about “Interstellar” and Earth defeatism in general.

NASA’s Orion capsule has cost north of $9 billion — but where will it go?

NASA’s Mission Improbable

Will Elon Musk and the “New Space” people get to Mars first?

The 2014 NRC report warned that NASA’s strategy invited “failure” and “disillusionment”

 


This computer-generated images depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater, beginning to catch morning light. NASA/JPL