‘The Martian’ author Andy Weir injects science fact in science fiction

By Lauren Puckett

Andy Weir is a huge geek. He said so himself.

Photo courtesy of NASA

A rover picture of the surface of Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Weir participated in an on-air Google Hangout with students from universities across the country at a Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) meeting on Jan. 26. The MU branch of SEDS, a group of space enthusiasts that build rockets and discuss the cosmos, met in Ketcham Auditorium in Laffere Hall to eat pizza and watch Weir’s webcast on a projector screen. Participants could then tweet their questions to the national SEDS Twitter account, watching Weir answer them live.

“I’m disastrously late, and I have the worst excuse: I fell asleep,” Weir said upon appearing on the webcam, roughly fifteen minutes after originally scheduled.

Weir, 43, blonde-haired and (occasionally) bespectacled, is the bestselling author of the science fiction hit, The Martian. Originally a self-published story on Weir’s personal website, the book gained enough popularity that Weir put it up on Amazon, and after selling thousands of copies, it was picked up by publishers, according to The Washington Post. Now the book has been made into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon as the titular character, Mark Watney.

Critics have praised Weir for his use of real science in his science fiction hit. Weir said he even calculated orbital trajectories based on a software he made himself.

“I always get really put off when the science in science fiction is wrong,” Weir said during his talk. “I wanted to write something that dorks like me would appreciate.”

But even in a fictional setting, using real science, real data, and real information sparked its fair share of problems.

“Because I set the goal of making the science accurate, the hardest part was making the science accurate,” Weir said.

Poster courtesy 20th Century Fox

Poster courtesy 20th Century Fox

Weir said he did most of his research on his own, as he hadn’t known anyone in the aerospace program at the time of the book’s writing. While the book and film succeed in many of their science endeavors, there are a few key points where the facts just don’t match up.

Below, both Weir and other researchers reveal the factual issues with The Martian:

  1. There’s water on Mars. In September 2015, NASA released new findings from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that provided strong evidence liquid water flows on the red planet’s surface. Ideally, this would mean Watney wouldn’t have to make his own water, as he did in both the novel and the film. Weir said this information was released just a little too late, as he’d published the book before NASA published its report.
  2. The storm that stranded Watney could never really happen, Weir said. At the beginning of the novel, a wild sandstorm knocks Watney off his feet and sends him flying out into the dunes of Mars. His crew is forced to leave without him. But because Mars’ atmosphere is remarkably thin, Weir said, a storm of such proportion couldn’t happen. He ignored this fact purely to keep the drama alive, he said.
  3. Mars is radiation station. According to a Time magazine article, travelers to Mars would be exposed to solar energetic particles and galactic cosmic rays. Watney, having spent 500 sols (a sol being 39 minutes longer than Earth’s days) on Mars, would experience an extraordinary amount of radiation, 15 times the annual permissible dosage for workers in nuclear power plants. It’s likely he’d get some pretty extreme radiation poisoning. 
  4. The cut glove wouldn’t have that much thrust. In the film, Watney snips a small hole in his glove in order to “fly like Iron Man” through space, right into the arms of his rescuers. Weir, laughing, said this wasn’t quite realistic. The thrust emitted by such a cut would only produce a slow whoosh, not the burst of speed depicted in the movie.

Despite the scientific discrepancies, Weir is proud of the story he’s created, and in particular how it compares to other science fiction stories.

“There’s a huge boost in science fiction these days but unfortunately it seems dominated by these bleak, dystopian landscapes,” Weir said. “And I don’t buy into that. I think every decade is going to progress and be better than the last.”

Several members of the MU chapter of SEDS were excited to see Weir face-to-face after having watched The Martian in theaters. Alex Thornton, president of the MU chapter of SEDS, passed around a sign-up sheet for the SEDS email list, hoping the event would spark interest in the club.

Building rockets, space balloons and getting more students excited about outer space are “the meat and potatoes of what our club accomplishes,” Thornton wrote in an email to participants.


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