WWU’s real-life Rocket Girl will chat with ‘The Martian’ author

Matt Damon stars in “The Martian,” a 2015 movie based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel.
Matt Damon stars in “The Martian,” a 2015 movie based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

One’s a sci-fi writer who’d never, ever, fly in space. The other’s a NASA scientist who won’t rule out a trip aboard a rocket ship.

But in a sense, both of them have been to the Red Planet – and they took many space enthusiasts with them.

Andy Weir, acclaimed author of “The Martian” and Melissa Rice, a Western Washington University assistant professor who works on the Mars rover project, will meet later this month for a discussion that focuses on space exploration and Weir’s new novel “Artemis.”

Weir and Rice were interviewed recently, offering a preview of their conversation at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Bellingham High School.

“It’s a good book to ‘geek-out’ on,” said Rice, who teaches planetary geology and astronomy at WWU. She gives “Artemis” a thumb’s-up as a gripping mystery with lots of real-world technology.

“I like the detail that Andy puts into the engineering complexity and realities,” Rice said. “I hope we get to revisit some of the aspects of ‘The Martian.’ I’m excited to hear his creative process.”

Weir, a computer programmer before he gained success as a writer, spends his free time pondering relativistic physics and orbital mechanics. He said he loves the technological challenge of making his stories seem realistically possible.

An atom walks into a bar and he says to the bartender, ‘I think I left an electron here last night.’ ‘Are you sure?’ the bartender says. ‘Yes, I’m positive.’

Andy Weir, author of ‘The Martian’

There are 10 kinds of people in this world: Those who understand binary and those who don’t.

Melissa Rice, Mars rover scientist

“There’s a comfort and intense accuracy in scientific problem-solving,” Weir said by phone from his home in Sunnyvale, California. “(In ‘Artemis,’) I give you all the information that you need to solve the problem yourself.”

He said the idea for his second novel started with thinking about the first human outpost in space. He considered setting it on Mars, or on a space station in low Earth orbit, but finally settled on the moon. Artemis is the name of the lunar city, a vacation destination for middle-class travelers who want to experience space flight and see the original Apollo landing sites.

“I like the science. I like the problem-solving in space,” Weir said. “All the problem-solving is science-related. These sorts of things are really fascinating for me. I’m a space dork, right? It’s my hobby.”

Andy Weir author photo credit Aubrie Pick
Novelist Andy Weir is shown in a recent publicity photo. Aubrie Pick Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Weir said his childhood wasn’t much different from that of the teens in the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” playing Dungeons and Dragons and hanging out in video arcades. Rice said she was more into PBS-TV’s “Cosmos.”

Rice became interested in space as a teenager, much later than Weir, who grew up watching “Star Trek” with his scientist dad.

“I took an astronomy class in high school and learned about the sun,” Rice said. “When I heard that the sun had an expiration date ... that got me thinking – wow! Science, the cosmos, the laws of physics. Those are the things that I’ve got to study. Those are the things that are gonna last. And that’s how I got to Mars.”

She said that while doing her graduate work at Cornell University, she made contacts among the scientists who worked on the Mars lander project, and changed her focus to planetary geology.

“Cornell was where the rovers were. The rovers are more geologists than they are astronomers,” she said.

Her heroes are more like astronomer Ellie Arroway of “Contact” than Mr. Spock or the “holy trinity” of writers who inspired Weir: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.

“I think it was Carl Sagan’s writing that really spoke to me,” Rice said. “(Arroway) was a complex character with a lot of thought and emotions. That broke the stereotype more than her gender.”

Both Weir and Rice were born after the first moon landings, which began with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.

Western Washington University assistant professor Melissa Rice is shown in 2012 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA photo Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“I remember watching the Columbia launch – STS-1, the first (space shuttle) mission – I was really into ‘Star Trek’; when I was a kid there was only one,” Weir said. “My dad was a huge inspiration. He was always ready to sit down and explain things to me. He had this inexhaustible collection of sci-fi books. That’s what I grew up reading. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, their books defined science fiction to me.”

But if Weir makes space exploration come alive for readers’ imaginations, Rice makes science fiction become reality.

“About three days a month, I’m on the phone with folks at (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), making a plan for what the Rover’s gonna do that day,” Rice said. “If I get up early, I might be the first to see images from Mars.

“We do see things that are geologically strange and wonderful, things that you wouldn’t expect. I see myself as part of a pioneering mission ... part of the team that built the wagon,” rather than an actual explorer.

Would Rice go into space if she could?

“It depends on if it was a one-way or return trip,” she said. “I’m not sure that I would sign up to be the first to go.”

But Weir, who said he suffers from generalized anxiety disorder and has a strong fear of flying, prefers terra firma. It’s a condition he’ll always have, but he’s learned to manage it with medical help.

“Nope, nope. Nopity nope,” Weir said. “I write about brave people. I’m not one of them.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

Mars discussion

A conversation featuring “The Martian” author Andy Weir and WWU’s Melissa Rice, a scientist on the Mars rover project.

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 29. Doors open at 6:30.

Where: Bellingham High School, 2020 Cornwall Ave.

Admission: $5; free with a purchase of “Artemis.” Tickets available at Village Books, 1200 11th St. or online at brownpapertickets.com. Proceeds benefit Bellingham High School’s PTSA.