I’ve got a big feature in the March 2016 issue of Air & Space / Smithsonian, where I work, about the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, which is the two-stage technology NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is working on that will one day allow NASA to deposit heavier objects on the surface of Mars intact than they have up ’til now — a problem they need to solve before any potential crewed mission could happen. Sounds pretty dry and technical, maybe, but why not show a little confidence in my ability to tell a story? My pal and editor Heather Goss already made me take all the acronyms out, upping the likelihood you’ll read this, we both hope.
“There are a bunch of severe psychological effects that would happen to someone being isolated for almost two years. And also the anxiety and stress of being on the verge of death from various problems for so long—most people would not be able to handle that. The loneliness, the isolation, the anxiety, and stress—I mean, it would take an enormous psychological toll. And I didn’t deal with any of that. I just said like, ‘Nope, that’s not how Mark Watney rolls.’ So he has almost superhuman ability to deal with stress and solitude.
“And the reason I did that was because I didn’t want the book to be a deep character study of crippling loneliness and depression—that’s not what I wanted! So the biggest challenge were the psychological aspects, and I just didn’t address them and I hope the reader doesn’t notice.”
— Novelist Andy Weir, to Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchinson, last year.
“Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie.”
— David Bowie, “Starman,” 1972.
My review of The Martian, screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Ridley Scott’s inspiring and so-good-I’m-mad-it’s-not-great adaptation of Andy Weir’s superb novel, is up at NPR now. Further Reading: My interview with Martian star Matt Damon for Air & Space / Smithsonian.
I’m a big fan of Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian. I was actually listening to the audiobook on the day in April when I visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where the book is partially set. (It’s also set in space and on Mars.) I was out there doing some reporting for my day job with Air & Space / Smithsonian, and it was in that capacity that I got on the phone this week with Matt Damon, who plays the story’s protagonist, stranded astronaut Mark Watney, in Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, due out Oct. 2. The film hasn’t screened for critics yet, but the fact its release date was moved up by nearly two months suggests the studio is convinced it works. Continue reading
So I lucked into an advance copy of Stiff author Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Set for publication in August, the book shows us the cosmic lengths to which space agencies must go to replicate off-world conditions here on Earth for the purposes of testing their equipment — and more to the point, the puny, hungry, fragile humans who rely on it to survive in a place nature clearly never meant for us to reach.
I haven’t read any of Roach’s prior books, but it took her about a sentence and a half to seduce me with the humor and sense of wonder she brings to her uncluttered reportage of complex scientific stuff. One chapter talks about an experiment called Mars-500 wherein Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems locked would-be astronauts in a mockup spacecraft together for 500 days, the span of time required, using current technology, for a manned ship to journey to the Red Planet and back.
The test subjects faced simulations of the various emergencies they might have to cope with on a real Mars mission, but the primary purpose of the experiment was examine the psychological effects of so long an isolation. An similar experiment the IMBP hosted in 1999-2000, using an eight-member, coed, multinational crew, ended early. There was unwanted French-kissing and, in a separate incident, writes Roach, “a fistfight that left the walls spattered with blood.” Continue reading