There’s something about the Red Planet—so close yet so far, inhospitable yet perhaps not totally uninhabitable—that keeps us dreaming about getting there one day. Here’s what that trajectory might look like, from the fictional world of best seller The Martian (now a film starring Matt Damon that hits theaters this Friday) to the technology we still need to crack.
Q&A With Andy Weir, Author of The Martian
It opens on a nightmare: An astronaut is left behind on Mars and must survive on the hostile planet. The Martian author Andy Weir, a former software engineer, includes so many technical details in his book—orbital trajectories, the molecular gymnastics required for turning air into water—that you might think a manned mission to Mars would be a cinch. Not so fast, Weir says. For one thing, we shouldn’t get so hung up on humans actually reaching the surface. —David Ferry
WIRED: In the book, Mars missions have become almost routine. Do you think we’ll send astronauts to Mars anytime soon?
Weir: I suspect the first manned exploration will actually be sophisticated robots on the surface and humans in orbit.
One of the challenges of unmanned exploration is the robots have to land themselves—Mars is kind of a graveyard for probes. But imagine that they send seven probes into a parking orbit above the planet. Then they send humans. Now we have humans in orbit and in instant communication with the probes. The humans make sure the probes land correctly.
Then is it even worth it to send astronauts to the surface?
Oh yeah. Why did Sir Edmund Hillary climb Everest? [Laughs.] But it’s hard to justify the additional costs and risk. Still, I would like to have humanity able to survive if there’s a catastrophe on Earth. It’s not within our technological reach to colonize Mars right now, despite what some groups say, but we can do it eventually.
Do you think sci-fi can influence (or inspire) policy?
Things capture public attention, and if that’s a side effect of my book, I’m happy. There’s nothing NASA is going to learn from me—I’m just a space enthusiast. All I have to do is make shit up convincingly enough that you think it’s true.