Down-to-Earth Lessons from The Martian

I’m not one for bandwagons. One of my greatest assets and liabilities is that, for some reason, I have an innate desire to be independent. Perhaps it’s because I’m an only child. Perhaps I’m just not great at staying in touch with people. Or maybe I’m just overly risk-averse. But every so often, a pied piper comes along with just the right tune that gets my attention.

This time, it was Andy Weir’s The Martian.

[SPOILER ALERT: This article reveals significant plot points, characters and even the ending of the novel. Deal with it.]

The original icon for all space LEGO sets from back in the day.

It wasn’t really fair. I never stood a chance. I grew up the son of a rocket scientist and a fifth-grade teacher who loved books. Space was a regular nutrient in my diet as a kid. From my Star Wars figures (still have my fully-loaded Darth Vader carrying case) to my space LEGO sets (LL928, represent) to the constant flow of stickers, posters, patches, pocket protectors, branded pencils, commemorative coins, silver leather shuttle jacket and compressed carbon engine models my dad brought home from his job at the former Rocketdyne facility in the San Fernando Valley, space was everywhere I turned. Unfortunately, math was my mortal enemy, so I never did make it to astronaut school.

I didn’t want to buy into the hype of The Martian. Last time I let a marketing machine fool me I found myself hating a creature named Jar Jar Binks. Lesson learned.

Nevertheless, something deep in me couldn’t avoid the name Andy Weir. First I saw it at the office at the XPRIZE Foundation, where we put on crazy competitions to get people who don’t have enough sense to be cynical and instead take on nearly impossible challenges. Our first successful prize, the Ansari XPRIZE, awarded ten million bucks to a team that got a three-person craft into the stratosphere twice in ten days. The winning technology was bought by Richard Branson, who subsequently created Virgin Galactic. I worked on all of the prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, which is incentivizing teams around the world to get a lander and rover on the moon. You could say that space is in the DNA at XPRIZE too, so it’s no surprise that I found Weir’s book in our lending library.

But I resisted. The crescendo of the marketing effort behind his bestseller was only ramping up. Word of a movie being directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon was out, but I’ve been here before. I wasn’t going to get suckered in. You owe me two hours and four minutes of my life, Prometheus.

Still, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of that vermillion and white book cover. The juxtaposition of the title against an image of a clearly human astronaut being engulfed by a cloud of Martian dust was intriguing. And the layout of the title and author set loosely in white USN Stencil font burned itself into my inner design sanctum and never faded out.

The marketing machine began building up steam. The book reviews were rapturous, and even people in my social circles who don’t read sci-fi (much less hard sci-fi) were talking about it. Then the glowing early reviews of the movie began to percolate. But I stayed strong.

I just didn’t see Weir’s interview on Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy coming. I subscribe to many podcasts, including Song Exploder, This American Life and On Point. But one of my favorite habits is the 52 minutes I spend every weekend in full geek mode, listening to David Barr Kirtley totally nerd out, asking sometimes disjointed questions to people I’d give a pinky to talk to. There I was on a late-night walk with my dog when I started to listen to him interview Andy Weir. The universe just wouldn’t let me ignore him.

Andy Weir, my new hero.

Let me say this: Andy Weir sounds like a great guy. He is one of those rare people who can be humble, kind, patient and a little cocky all at the same time. I can ignore marketing (mostly), but I can’t ignore it when I like someone. Weir is a hardcore nerd with a thinly-veiled sense of unyielding optimism, and outstanding taste in hats. He’s a kindred spirit.

So there I was, staring at my Audible account, wondering what to listen to next, and it fell into place. An hour later, R.C. Bray’s voice was bouncing my ear drums around, and I was hooked.

It’s not just that Weir’s book is great. Sure, his characterization is incredible, his structure is solid, his research is nearly flawless (we’ll overlook that pesky dust storm issue) and his prose is pitch perfect. But above all, The Martian does something so few books do these days: It leaves the reader with a sense of hope for humanity, and it does this by sharing lessons that I felt necessary to explore:

Holding down the fort at JPL Misson Control. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls via Getty.

Science Is Done By People
When most people picture a scientist, they picture someone who can’t talk to girls, rarely bathes and has fashion sense that is between ten and twenty years behind the times. But Weir’s characters are real, true human beings. I’ve met men and women like Venkat Kapoor, Mindy Park, Rich Purnell and Commander Lewis at the few events I attended with my dad at Rocketdyne, and in my daily work at XPRIZE. Even as a kid and later as a college student, I noticed something…unique…about the people in the scientific world. They were different than the colorful characters in my animation department at CalArts and the creative teams I’ve been a part of. These folks were particular, focused and sure, sometimes socially awkward. But they were fascinating and charming as well.

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II on an untethered spacewalk on September 27, 2009. Yeah, it blows my mind that this is a real photo, too. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Astronauts Are Inherently Insane. And Really Noble.
I hope to be described like that one day. At XPRIZE, I’m surrounded by people either on our staff or our competing teams that can fit this description quite well. From the patriarch of an Alaskan fishing family who believed that his knowledge of netting could revolutionize how to draw spilled oil out of the ocean, to an auto shop teacher in a working class high school in Philadelphia who believed that his kids could go make a car that got 100 MPGe, to the Japanese robotics engineer who sees his efforts to land a rover on the moon as a way to honor the thousands of people from his district who died in the 2011 tsunami, XPRIZE teams are full of people who are inherently insane. And really noble. It’s a trait that we see in everyone in our innovation ecosystem that looks at the world and sees potential, opportunity and grace.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney. Casting this good doesn’t happen very often.

Great Stories Can Be Hilarious
Holy crap Andy Weir is a crack-up. His main character, Mark Watney, is a masterful combination of bravado, skill and humility. But above all, his humor was what kept me rooting for him. The same story could have been told with a hero who had so much gravitas he could have never achieved escape velocity, but instead, Weir loaded Watney with so many punchlines that I occasionally forgot just how dire his circumstances were. So many pieces of entertainment in the last decade seem to be created as part of a never ending game of one-upmanship about who could brood more. It’s great to see someone mature enough to be clever, and perhaps a little absurd.

Sometimes happy endings happen in real life. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL.

It’s Possible to Write a Great Book with a Happy Ending
So many writers and directors seem to feel that in order to be taken seriously, they not only have to jeopardize their main characters, but they must also senselessly murder a character or two to show that they understand the cruel rules of nature. But in Weir’s book, every page is full of Mother Nature flipping the bird to every single character in the novel. Yet he never kills anyone. Some critics may chide Weir for not being “real,” but I would suggest that there are just as many stories about things going right than there are bout fate crapping all over your pancakes.

“I’ll spend the rest of the evening enjoying a potato. And by “enjoying” I mean “hating so much I want to kill people.”

Logic Overcomes Panic
I don’t know what they teach in astronaut school, but the ability to steel one’s self against the bitter humor of life by relying on cool logic is beyond inspiring. I don’t blame astronauts for having a little swagger. If I were able to pilot a spacecraft, I’d think I had some serious street cred as well. Anyhow, I’ve stared at abject defeat in the worst of circumstances in my life many times. Never did I have the composure I witnessed in Weir’s book, but I’m definitely going to be using his main character as a guide for how I conduct myself and raise my kids.

“From this, I concluded the following: 1. I’ve been in a dust storm for several sols. 2. Shit.”

I Don’t Have Real Problems
Stories like that of Mark Watney left alone with his wits and some scraps of engineering material on Mars reminds me that while I may not like traffic or picking up my kids’ clothes, things could always be a whole lot worse. As a good friend always says, I’m very, very rich.

“Oh,” Lewis said, “well if you won’t let us then — Wait… wait a minute… I’m looking at my shoulder patch and it turns out I’m the commander. Sit tight. We’re coming to get you.”

Never, Ever Give Up
Sure, it sounds like a cat poster. But when you take a journey watching human beings use creativity and science to overcome every single odd imaginable, it’s more inspiring than I thought possible. The methodical work done by Watney, the crew of the Hermes and the countless engineers on earth snuck up on me and never asked that I consider their work heroic. But results speak for themselves.

I’ve seen a whole lot worse. Well, not really.

How You Choose to View Your Circumstances Determines Everything
There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that the world is a colossal, hopeless mess, full of villains, outcasts and lost souls. But there is equally enough evidence to support the belief that our world is the most beautiful thing in the universe, full of heroes, dreamers and innovators. It is up to every person to choose how they view the world and their life in it, and do whatever it takes to choose…wisely.

I was on the edge of my seat too.

Every Human Being has a Basic Instinct to Help Each Other Out
It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care. But they’re massively outnumbered by people who care.

Yeah, I ripped that last lesson, word-for-word, directly from Weir’s book. Not because I feel like plagiarizing, but because it deserves to be heard. There’s something just beautiful about Weir’s matter-of-fact romanticism here that keeps me going every damn day. It reminds me of a lesson that Mister Rogers’ mother taught him when he saw scary news on television. She would tell him to “Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.” I hope that when others look at me, they see a helper.

After all, when you think about it, each of us is just one single being floating through the solar system on a planet. Fortunately, ours has most of the basics taken care of. We don’t have to crap in a bag so we can fertilize our crop of potatoes, and we can talk to someone other than ourselves if we so choose. Our journeys can be challenging, but as Mark Watney found out, it takes a combination of grit, intelligence, an undying sense of humor and reliance on our fellow human beings to survive.

Oh, and one more lesson learned:

Where the kisses are hers and hers and his…

1970s Television Was Wonderful
I’m going to go watch some Three’s Company now.
But I’m definitely not listening to any Disco. Screw that.