October 2, 2015

The Martian author Andy Weir’s path to success began at Sandia

ONE-TIME SANDIA INTERN Andy Weir’s New York Times best-selling novel The Martian has been made into a major motion picture directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) and starring Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity). The novel and movie tell the story of Mark Watney, who is left for dead on Mars by his crewmates following a horrific storm. Watney, however, has survived. The Martian is the tale of how he manages to stay alive long enough to contact NASA and wait for a rescue mission to “bring him home” (the tagline of the movie).

by Patti Koning

Long before Andy Weir was the New York Times best-selling author of The Martian, which comes out as a major motion picture on Oct. 2, he was an intern at Sandia/California. Andy was a curious, energetic, technically savvy teenager who had the good fortune to be paired with just the right mentor in metallurgist John Krafcik.

“Andy came to me after working in a couple of other groups, who I’m not sure knew quite what to do with him,” says John, who worked at Sandia from 1984-2000. “He was so full of ideas and creativity that he was bouncing off the walls. My biggest concern was roping him in and keeping him focused.”

John’s wife Karen Krafcik also knew Andy during this time. “He was a very upbeat teenager full of enthusiasm and energy,” she recalls.

Programming and ‘proper mad science’

This was the late 1980s, when computers and programming were still fairly new to many aspects of the workplace. It was an era when a kid like Weir with time to experiment with programming might know more than his Sandia mentor.

“It’s funny to recall what working with computers was like then. To transfer a file from a PC to a Mac you needed special cabling and a software program,” says John. “Every operation was very cumbersome.”

Weir’s first assignment at Sandia was in the Combustion Research Facility. “I was sort of dumped on a group while I waited for my security clearance,” he recalls. “A manager wanted to display data, so he handed me a book on C and asked me to figure it out. That’s how I started programming.”

John’s group was working on a project to gather compositional data on ingots that the aerospace industry used for turbine blades. “This project was the highlight of my career at Sandia,” he says. “We were eventually able to see and understand the defects to the extent that the manufacturer changed their furnace procedure and fixed the problem.”

Weir, adds John, contributed greatly to that success. “He was ahead of the curve in programming, way out in front of everyone else in the group,” he says. “Add to that his creativity. Andy challenged us to think of different ways to approach problems.”

“It was proper mad science,” says Weir. “To me, it was an awesome experience. I felt like a grownup for the first time. John gave me tough programming challenges. I discovered that I liked programming and was pretty good at it. That was my career for 25 years before becoming a full-time writer.”

Imagination and scientific accuracy yields a best-seller

John is not surprised at Weir’s success. “His imagination was off the wall,” he says. “All you had to do was put a pen in his hand.”

Weir always wanted to be a writer and even spent three years working on a novel that was never published, time he financed by selling his America Online stock options after being laid off from that company.

In 2009, when he began writing The Martian, Weir was strictly a hobbyist with an online writing group and a website where he self-published web comics, short stories, and serial novels. Weir shared his writing with a mailing list of about 3,000 other science fiction fans.

The Martian opens with astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars. To survive, Mark has to, as the character in the movie trailer puts it, “science the [expletive] out of it.” All that science was as technically accurate as possible, helped by feedback from Weir’s mailing list.

“I wanted to make sure that geeks like me could enjoy the book, so I put a huge amount of effort into making sure it was scientifically accurate,” he says. “I also put a huge amount of effort into procrastination. It was fun to do the research, often more fun than writing.”

Weir self-published through Amazon and the Kindle edition topped the best-selling science fiction list, which caught the attention of Random House. A month after publication, The Martian cracked the New York Times best-seller list. A month later Weir quit his day job. The Wall Street Journal described the book as “techno sci-fi at a level even Arthur Clarke never achieved.”

20th Century Fox quickly optioned the movie rights, the first step in a long process. Few books that are optioned ever turn into movies.

For The Martian, however, the pieces fell into place quickly. Drew Goddard (World War Z, Cloverfield) liked the book and signed on as screenwriter. Actor Matt Damon liked the screenplay and wanted to star. Ridley Scott agreed to direct.

“It was a huge surprise,” says Weir. “And it sort of crept up, there was never a moment when I popped the champagne. I’m thrilled with how the movie turned out.”

His role in the movie — a question he’s asked often — officially was to cash the check. But Weir says Goddard consulted with him almost daily while writing the screenplay and he continued to answer questions during the filming. “They were under no obligation to take my suggestions, but they did incorporate some, which made me happy.”

Andy’s alter ego, Mark Watney

John thoroughly enjoyed the book — and recognized much of his former mentee in the main character. “Mark Watney has all of the qualities I like about myself and none that I don’t,” says Weir.

“Andy’s optimism is definitely reflected in The Martian through the character Mark Watney,” says Karen. “His selfless sharing of his stories with fans brought him success. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

In addition to starting him on a fulfilling and lucrative career as a programmer, Weir credits his experience as a Sandia intern with another aspect of his success.

“I was told that I nailed the culture at NASA, even from people currently working there,” he says. “I didn’t research that aspect of NASA. I based it on my experience at Sandia, figuring that one large government-funded, research and science organization would be similar to another.”

Andy Weir talks The Martian at LLNL

Want to hear more about Andy Weir? See the YouTube video from his visit to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in September:


See the full October 2, 2015 edition of the Lab News online.

-- Patti Koning

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