On This Episode
Chief Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Author of The Martian and Project Hail Mary
Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
A rollicking conversation with two of the most entertaining, most creative Planetary Radio guests across our 20-year history about the role of creativity in space and life. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and “Project Hail Mary” have been New York Times number one bestsellers. Rob Manning oversees all engineering operations at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and knows as much as any human being about how to land on the red planet. Sarah Al-Ahmed helps Mat Kaplan celebrate the success of Artemis 1, while Bruce Betts receives his 20th anniversary gift from Mat!
- Rob Manning’s JPL bio page
- Andy Weir’s website
- Artemis, NASA's Moon landing program
- The night sky
- The Downlink
- Subscribe to the monthly Planetary Radio newsletter
This Week’s Question:
After Mat retires as the host of Planetary Radio, what job would you like him to do or can you envision him doing? Your answer can be serious or funny. Bruce and Mat will pick the winner.
This Week’s Prize:
A Planetary Society Kick Asteroid r-r-r-rubber asteroid!
To submit your answer:
Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, December 22 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
How long in hours and minutes was the longest extra-vehicular activity (EVA) carried out on the surface of the Moon?
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the November 30, 2022 space trivia contest:
Planetary Radio is 20 Earth years old. Approximately how old is it in Mercury years?
Planetary Radio would be just about 83 Mercurian years old.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, boy, Andy Weir and Rob Manning together this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. He is the author of The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary. The other guy is the Jet Propulsion Lab's chief engineer, a position he reached after establishing himself as the go-to guy for safely landing robots on Mars. Both have been heard here many times. I have dreamed of getting them together. Now with just three episodes to go as host, Andy and Rob will join me for one of the most entertaining, provocative, funny, and enlightening conversations in our 20-year history. It's also one of the longest, but I don't think most of you will mind. And if you stay till the end, you'll hear Bruce Betts reacting well to the 20th anniversary gift I'll give him. Incoming host, Sarah Al-Ahmed, will be here in a minute to help us celebrate the very successful completion of the Artemis 1 mission. And as you'll hear me mention to Sarah, I spent a couple of delightful hours at Navy Base San Diego on board the USS Portland. In that great ship's cavernous semi-submersible bay sat the Artemis 1 Orion capsule. The December 9 edition of the Downlink, our free weekly newsletter, came out too soon to capture the splash down, but it does mark the 50th anniversary of the last time humans visited the moon. That was Apollo 17, of course, with Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, and geologist Harrison Schmitt on the crew. There's a great photo of these heroes at planetary.org/downlink. The Planetary Society is also celebrating NASA's decision to launch the Near-Earth Object, or NEO Surveyor, in 2028. And thank goodness. We'll finally have that dedicated infrared space telescope that will find many more asteroids that cross our path. Want to know what a big space rock can do? How about the one that may have generated a tsunami 80 stories high? This wave may have swept across Mars a few billion years ago. That story and more are waiting for you along with the free digital edition of the Planetary Report, our quarterly magazine. Sarah, welcome back. I hope that I have just driven you green with envy because I know you've already seen the selfie I took as I was standing just a few feet away from the Orion capsule recovered as part of the Artemis 1 mission. So cool.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: That is so cool. I'm so looking forward to having adventures like that in the future, but I'm glad you got to do that. How was it? Was it burnt to a crisp?
Mat Kaplan: It was pretty toasty. It was quite toasty, but in very good shape, apparently, from what I was told by the NASA folks who were there. By the way on next week's show, I'll feature some of the conversations I had, including one with Shannon Walker, a very experienced astronaut who has ridden on Crew Dragon and Soyuz. We talked a little bit about how they compare with Orion. Anyway, she and some other folks that we will talk to next week... Tell you what. We'll post at least one of my photos of the capsule in the bay, the submersible bay, on the USS Portland. But there'll be more stuff next week. I know you were excited.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. Not only does this mark the end to the Artemis 1 mission, amazingly successful end, but it also splashed down 50 years to the day since the Apollo 17 astronauts landed on the moon. So it all came around full circle. That's just so cool and poetic.
Mat Kaplan: Just cosmic timing. I love it. It really was not intentional. This is just how the things came out, I believe. You have your own Artemis coverage coming up in, what, your second show?
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, my second show on January 11th in 2023. I spoke with Jeremy Graeber, who's the assistant launch director at Kennedy Space Center. We had a whole wonderful conversation about the launch, what went on that night, but also about the passengers aboard the Orion capsule, the three mannequins and the little plushy Snoopy. I wanted to know what was going to happen with that plushy Snoopy, so I got the details on that.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, that's great. Good reason, along with many others, to tune in because, of course, Sarah will in, what, three short weeks now with the January 4th show. That will be when she takes over the microphone here on Planetary Radio. Your first guest on that first show, I hear he's sometimes okay.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Sometimes okay. Well, of course you are my first guest, Mat. I needed to talk to you about your experience on Planetary Radio and thank you for everything you've done over these years. Additionally, thank you for being my first guest.
Mat Kaplan: You are very welcome, and thank you for that honor. You'll be back next week for another one of these brief segments up front. Then on my very last program when we will continue the tradition of talking with Planetary Society colleagues, a little review of the year 2022 in space, it has been quite a year, and Sarah will be part of that panel. So I'll talk to you then as well.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Gosh, what a year. There's so much to go over. It was really exciting.
Mat Kaplan: You bet. Thanks, Sarah.
Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks so much, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: I could easily take 10 minutes telling you about my guests and we'd cover just their highlights, but they can speak for themselves and they do so at length in the glorious conversation you're about to hear. You won't soon forget it if you enjoy it half as much as I did. Here are Rob Manning and Andy Weir. I cannot tell you how much I have been looking forward to this with some trepidation because I didn't want to screw it up because I knew how great it could be. Just as we've been working to get Rob's mike working, I've been reassured because, Andy, you've been so great with your insults of Rob's technical ability. Welcome.
Rob Manning: [inaudible 00:06:24].
Andy Weir: The guy can land things on Mars, cannot get his microphone working.
Rob Manning: No, no, no. I'm very specialized.
Andy Weir: No, no, no, no. I think what they were telling you at the school district was that you're special. [inaudible 00:06:35].
Rob Manning: That's true. That's true.
Mat Kaplan: You're a systems engineer, Rob, that's you're a systems-
Rob Manning: I delegate to important people with technical stuff-
Andy Weir: He's a hardware guy.
Rob Manning: ... unlike Andy.
Andy Weir: I'm a software guy.
Rob Manning: Andy, Andy, could you explain this method call to this microphone? I just don't get it.
Mat Kaplan: Before you get into that, could I introduce the two of you? Because there are going to be a lot of firsts in this Planetary Radio. I don't know if it's a first for me to introduce somebody during the interview, but I generally don't. Rob Manning came to JPL from Caltech as a draftsman on the Galileo Jupiter mission.
Rob Manning: Yes.
Mat Kaplan: By the early 1990s, he was chief engineer for Mars Pathfinder, the brilliantly successful mission that put us back on the road to Mars and included that cute little Sojourner rover that will someday become Mark "The Martian" Watney's pet. Since then, it has been Mars all the way down, though he is now also the lab's overall chief engineer. Welcome, Rob.
Rob Manning: Thank you, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: You're welcome. Andy Weir is the author of not one but two number one New York Times Bestselling novels, the Martian, and his most recent book, Project Hail Mary, which I've described as having an average of one great laugh and one fascinating innovation on every page. Oh, look at that, Rob is now promoting the book. I could get my copy. In between these, you can have some great fun on the moon with Artemis. I also recommend Cheshire Crossing, his wonderful, feisty graphic novel created with artist, Sarah Andersen, that brings together three of the greatest young female heroines of all time: Alice Wonderland Liddell, and I thank you for making her hair black as it actually was, Wendy Darling, and Dorothy Gale. I highly recommend it. I read it just a couple of weeks ago. Welcome, guys. Welcome, again.
Andy Weir: Hi. Thanks. It's great to be here on this your-
Rob Manning: It's a great pleasure for me too.
Andy Weir: ... final Planetary Radio with guests.
Mat Kaplan: That's right, with external guests, absolutely.
Andy Weir: When did you start? What year?
Mat Kaplan: It's 20 years ago.
Andy Weir: 2002. In the time that Planetary Radio has been going, we lost a planet. We did.
Mat Kaplan: That wasn't my fault.
Andy Weir: I hold you responsible. When you started Planetary Radio, there were nine planets. Now there are eight. This is supposed to be The Planetary Society. You're supposed to promote planets not having vanish them.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, man.
Andy Weir: In fact, not only that, they're big on planetary defense.
Rob Manning: I know, I know.
Andy Weir: That's a big thing.
Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:09:14].
Andy Weir: They didn't defend Pluto.
Mat Kaplan: Maybe Pluto was a threat.
Andy Weir: My parents' generation, they grew up being taught that Pluto was a planet. So I saw a great picture, it just said, "Pluto, the planet," and a little talk bubble that says, "I was big enough for your mom."
Mat Kaplan: I guess we can run that on NPR. Gentlemen, I'm going to ask you to... The reason I did your intros live is that, as I warned you, I'm going to ask you to continue those introductions of each other. Something else I've never done. Rob, would you please tell us about Andy Weir?
Rob Manning: Well, Andy Weir, he's this software guy from the central California area. Apparently, he had this idea of writing this book about Mars. But he wasn't that confident in himself, so he had to kind of do it online. He had a bunch of people, and I really wish I'd been one of those people, to comment on, was it, weekly posts that you put out of your book, monthly-
Andy Weir: A chapter a month roughly.
Rob Manning: ... a chapter a month, and then people commented and you went back in and redlined. What kind of confidence is that? I kind of count on other people to help me out, too. I read the whole thing, was it, so someone like Penguin Books picks you up or something like that?
Andy Weir: Penguin Random House.
Rob Manning: Penguin Random House.
Andy Weir: The imprinting at the time was called Crown Publishing. They're gone now and they've become Ballantine.
Mat Kaplan: I should mention that you guys know each other. That's one of the reasons I wanted to bring you together. Rob, I wish I had recorded the wonderful things that you said about Andy when I just told you that I wanted to get the two of you together because I don't know if you're willing to repeat them now.
Rob Manning: I can't remember what I said.
Mat Kaplan: You have a pretty high opinion of him.
Rob Manning: Well, I wish he wasn't here to listen to this. I mean, this is really embarrassing.
Mat Kaplan: I thought that was it.
Rob Manning: It goes back to how you see the world. There's a sense of what's really magical about engineering or about making things is that we live in a physical world that we can pull things together and pull ideas together. Andy loves integrating that component in with humanity because it's important to remember that we're also physical beings that interact with this world. That's the magic of being alive. Andy, you're able to pull in science and engineering in an actualization sense with the closeness to the actual universe that we live in that really allows for that interaction to feel real and feel dramatic. By the way, that's how my world feels like. Even though I have to admit, it's amazing how much time we spend in PowerPoint space staring at the universe of bullets and block diagrams and things like that. So you have to sometimes pull yourself out of that and look at the reality. What's so cool about Andy's books, and I think a lot what we do, too, is we try to explore ideas, and we build up complicated systems to explore our universe not for the sake of going out there, not for just the sake of looking, but to actually change what's in our brains. That's what Andy does to the reader.
Andy Weir: Aw, thanks so much. That's really nice.
Mat Kaplan: Your turn, Andy.
Andy Weir: Well, we're all really proud of Rob. He hasn't had any heroin in six months.
Rob Manning: That's very good. That's verifiably true. It's verifiably true.
Andy Weir: Rob, can you confirm?
Rob Manning: I can confirm.
Andy Weir: In the past six can months, have you had any heroin?
Rob Manning: I have had very, very... virtually zero heroin in the last six months.
Andy Weir: Zero heroin in the last six months, and we're all just really, really proud of that. Also, I just want to point out that he was not convicted of murder, not once.
Mat Kaplan: Not even close.
Andy Weir: Not once. He did not get convicted.
Rob Manning: You know what they say?
Andy Weir: No, seriously-
Rob Manning: It takes, what, 20 years to be an excellent musician. It takes, what, in your case, about six months to be a good writer. But all it takes is one time to kill somebody-
Andy Weir: [inaudible 00:13:37].
Rob Manning: ... and then all of a sudden you're a murderer.
Mat Kaplan: I think you both missed your callings apparently.
Andy Weir: Seriously, it's really amazing the stuff that Rob has done and gotten to be in charge of and be a part of. I'm very envious. When I first wrote The Martian, of course, I did it as he described. I posted it a chapter at a time to my website. I had no contact. I didn't know anyone at NASA or JPL or anything like that. Then it started to gain popularity. Then I had people like Rob contacting me. He's like, "Hey, I'm Rob Manning. I land stuff on Mars. I want to tell you that this is really neat." I'm like, "Wait, wait, go back. Wait, stop."
Rob Manning: Exactly.
Andy Weir: I think I remember, this is more about NASA than JPL, but I remember one time it was like Christmas time. On ISS, they had to do a pseudo-emergency space walk to fix a water leak outside the station. It was on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or whatever. I was at my mom's, and I was just hanging out, kind of bored, and reading my email. I got email from people at Mission Control for the station saying, "Hey, we're all just sitting here waiting for the emergency space walk to start. We weren't really expecting to have to have a full staff here, so we're kind of bored. Just thought we'd email you and say we liked The Martian." I'm like, "Oh, I can honestly say I didn't expect a email from Mission Control." Maybe Rob can speak to this, too. My favorite bit of feedback that I've gotten from the space community in general, once I got to meet all the movers and shakers and stuff like that, everybody at JPL and at Johnson Space Center and all the way up to the DC office of NASA and everything like that.
Mat Kaplan: You mean when they got to meet you?
Andy Weir: When they got to meet me, yes, when they were so privileged. When I got to meet all these people and do all these tours and look at all this awesome stuff, the one thing everyone agreed on was that the least accurate part of The Martian is the high degree of cooperation shown between NASA and JPL.
Mat Kaplan: Rob, [inaudible 00:15:49].
Rob Manning: I like that. I like that fiction. I like that fiction. It was great.
Mat Kaplan: Gentlemen, we could just keep jawboning like this for the next hour or two. But let me get into some questions that, at least initially, and I warned you there, I think, I hope there's some method to my madness, but some questions up front that you've been asked 6.02 times 10 to the 23rd times, what turned the two of you into space nerds, space science and engineering nerds? Rob?
Rob Manning: Well, I grew up for the most part in the Puget Sound, in the islands, Puget Sound, far away from any technical. The first time I met a real engineer was not till many, many years later. In fact, I thought engineers drove trains.
Andy Weir: Well, when you were born, that's what they did.
Rob Manning: That's what they did.
Andy Weir: Back when you were born, that's what engineer meant.
Rob Manning: I was reading National Geographic Magazine and Popular Mechanics, and those are the two main sources of technical knowledge that I gained, as well as there's a wonderful series of Time Life series of hardback books that were very popular back then. I collected all 40 of them. There were great pictures and stories in there about science and engineering, life, biology, all sorts of things. But the one I liked best, it was [inaudible 00:17:18] called Man in Space. It was people in space. It had all these pictures of astronauts learning how to operate a space suit. I just thinking, "These people are really going..." Of course, they had these pictures, Chesley Bonestell's paintings from the Collier's magazines were [inaudible 00:17:36] as well as Wernher von Braun's images of what Mars exploration might look like, spinning space stations, even before 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, which by the way blew my socks off when it came out as a kid. I just found that the idea of inventing things, I wanted to be an inventor and I think a space inventor. I was even okay about being a construction worker in a space station. I thought that might be kind of fun.
Andy Weir: So you'd settle for such a lowly position.
Rob Manning: Oh, man, would I ever. The whole thing that you could buy these Revell models of Mercury and Gemini, and then I was following Apollo. Anyway, long story short, I was growing up right in the era of human space exploration and space exploration in general. Mariner spacecraft was sent out, fly past Venus and Mars and eventually Mercury. We're just like, oh my gosh, these little dots in the sky are becoming real. Of course, in all these books about science and these pictures we had of Jupiter and Saturn, there was like blurry little circles with stripes and then the ring around it and that was it. What is it? We don't know. Very cool. What a great time to grow up.
Mat Kaplan: Can you see below my right shoulder down in that bookcase? That's the Life Science library.
Rob Manning: I see. There it is. You're got it right there.
Mat Kaplan: Man in Space. That was my favorite one in the series, too. One of the proudest moments of my life as a kid, I found a mistake, and I sent it into Time Life, and they sent me back a thank you note with a little paste-in caption to correct the caption that was incorrect on one of the illustrations. Made my year, probably made my life. Andy, what were your influences? What turned you into a nerd?
Andy Weir: Well, I think genetics largely. My father was... Both my parents are still alive, so when I speak in the past tense, I'm meaning that they're now retired. But my father was a linear accelerator physicist-
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Andy Weir: ... and so he made electrons go really fast and hit stuff. My mother was an electrical engineer. My dad, he's all about the physics and science and stuff like that. My mom was just doing it for the paycheck. She didn't have a lot of passion about it. She was good at it, but she was doing it just to make the money. What my mom really liked is reading. So that combination kind of makes me hopelessly fall into the science fiction setting. Another thing is my father never threw away a book in his life so far, I don't think. He has this giant bookshelf just full of every science fiction book he has ever owned dating all the way back to his own childhood. So I grew up reading the juveniles science fiction books from the 1950s and '60s and stuff. Not reprints, the original ones, so they have sort of a smell to them. The pages are yellowed a bit. Because the intended audience are 15 and 14-year-old boys, they have ads for cigarettes at the midpoint. Seriously. They'll be like a really long, just ordinary page, and then there'll be a glossy page that's an ad for Kent cigarettes-
Mat Kaplan: Kent.
Andy Weir: ... and then you just continue.
Mat Kaplan: Keep talking guys-
Andy Weir: [inaudible 00:20:54].
Mat Kaplan: I'm going to do something else I've never done. You just carry on the show. We hate dead air. I'll be right back.
Rob Manning: Andy, did you read Art C. Clark and Asimov?
Andy Weir: Oh, yeah. Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein are my holy trinity, so they're the ones I really grew up reading. Okay, here we are. Starman Jones-
Rob Manning: Robert Heinlein.
Andy Weir: I've read that. Yep.
Rob Manning: I remember that.
Mat Kaplan: Original edition. Yeah, that's it.
Rob Manning: Fantastic.
Mat Kaplan: I found it at a book sale.
Rob Manning: I get them mixed up because he has a few of them. Is that the one where he's basically in the space, kind of foreign legion equivalent? Is that Starman Jones?
Mat Kaplan: No, he becomes a navigator.
Rob Manning: Oh, okay, on a trading vessel where they speak Finnish.
Mat Kaplan: Something like that. I actually don't remember.
Rob Manning: I don't think I remember that. It was-
Mat Kaplan: I think you're right. You think it's going to be the woman that he ends up with and she doesn't. Anyway, it's pretty good. It's great stuff.
Rob Manning: There's that one-
Andy Weir: That's Heinlein.
Rob Manning: ... and then there's the one, I'm confusing it with a different Heinlein one where it's kind of like a soldier space-
Mat Kaplan: Starship Troopers.
Rob Manning: Starship Troopers. That is maybe the one I'm thinking of. Although the one I was thinking of was more obscure, but maybe it is that one. But then there's also Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, which I really liked.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, that's what got me into it. That was my first Heinlein story. You're nodding a lot, Rob. Were you also a fan of these Golden Era guys?
Rob Manning: Oh, yeah. Yeah, all these guys. It's what really got me into reading. It was the kind of thing where you... Especially, I love the smaller stories, too, where you could just sneak off during a little break in school and just hide your book in the backpack again and start over again.
Andy Weir: What you're talking about, Rob, I did the exact same thing. I would have a Heinlein book or Clark or Asimov or whatever in my backpack at school, and I'd sneak off and read it. The book, Red Planet, by Heinlein-
Mat Kaplan: Oh yeah, great book.
Andy Weir: ... has the distinction of being the first time I ever read a book start to finish in a single day.
Rob Manning: Oh, wow.
Andy Weir: So I was a teenager, I was in school. It was a school day, but all of my classes ended up having a lot of boring stuff going on, so I was just in the back reading my book.
Mat Kaplan: If only that had been the real Mars. It gets chilly at night, but you can still wander around.
Andy Weir: You can wander around. You ice skate across the great blank plains of Mars
Rob Manning: I think about the universes they took you from. My world, it didn't have technical or college-educated parents or environment. So these places just feel like I really was pulling to a different world really, and their imaginations that they had, especially back then, because they were inventing stuff way ahead of their time. We've seen so much of science fiction authors' visions come true. It's partly because they inspired engineers to do the very thing that they suggested. I just find it amazing how much innovation and imagination and curiosity these people had to make these books happen.
Andy Weir: I think that people give science fiction authors a little too much credit. I'll say something like, "Yeah, I'm a science fiction author," but it's easy to be a science fiction author. You just come up with pie-in-the-sky ideas and then pretend they work. It's engineers who actually make interesting things happen. Then inevitably someone will say, "Yeah, but it's science fiction guys who come up with these ideas and inspire the engineers." To which I say, "No, it's not." I guarantee you there's nothing that a sci-fi author came up with that an engineer didn't already come up with.
Mat Kaplan: I respectfully disagree with you, because you prove, as I said, on almost every page of your books, that you do come up with stuff which apparently is workable, and I don't think anybody has thought of-
Andy Weir: That's [inaudible 00:24:50].
Mat Kaplan: ... because nobody's put a human being in that situation before.
Andy Weir: I appreciate the compliment, and I won't spend too much time trying to fend off praise. But I will say that absolutely everything in the mission profile of the Ares missions in The Martian has been thought of. It's basically a variant of Mars Direct that I updated for modern technology because Mars Direct was invented in the '80s, and when I wrote The Martian, we had ion propulsion. I think that'll be a big part of it, so I updated things. But absolutely everything related to the mission profile in The Martian is stuff many, many people have already thought of.
Rob Manning: That's true with almost all of engineering, too. I hate to say it. When we see these things that we've done as engineers, we're really putting together this huge... We're standing on shoulders of giants is what we are. Yes, Andy, I'm sure you're right, that much of their ideas are coming from other things they've read, other technologists from futurists and other people who look at what's the trends in technology and things like that. But ultimately, it's putting them all together and integrating them into a storyline. That's what I do. I integrate all these different pieces into a story that hangs together and doesn't violate the laws of physics, which is my only other constraint, oh, and budgets and schedules. Don't forget those.
Mat Kaplan: There's that.
Rob Manning: But I do think that it's very analogous. Innovation is often not so much a magical, single idea, but a conglomeration of integrating these ideas into a whole. So you shouldn't under underestimate that. I mean, just little things. The whole idea of using hydrazine drip to get water. It's people like my group, we go, "We wear skate suits. We try to stay away from that (beep)." But the other thing he has, so wait a minute now, it turns out, if you're careful, it's okay. You just have to be very careful, really careful.
Andy Weir: What's funny about that specific scene in The Martian, or in the book anyway, somebody worked out and sent it to me, said like, "Okay, well..." I had given enough information that they could work this out. They knew the volume of the Hab from other things that I told. They knew how much hydrazine he reduced and over what time period he did it all and stuff like that. Based on that information, the temperature of the Hab would've gone up to about 350 degrees Celsius.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, gosh.
Andy Weir: So they emailed me that. I'm like, "Okay, listen here, you little (beep)." I said, "Hey, that's pretty cool. Good point. Wish you'd been around when I was doing the "everybody can comment and I can make changes." This was long after the book was in print. I said to him, I said, "Well," off camera, of course, "the Ares site, the base was expending a lot of energy to keep the Hab-
Mat Kaplan: To stay warm.
Andy Weir: ... warm, so it would just not have to expend that energy, but still, bite me, [inaudible 00:28:04]."
Mat Kaplan: Listen, you guys are demonstrating exactly why I wanted to talk to you about the topic I want to move to now and why I thought it would be so fun to bring you together. Well, that's a lie. I just wanted to get the two of you together in the conversation that I could be part of, or witness at least. Don't tell my other guests on the other 1,105 shows that we've now completed. But you two are, first of all, among the most fun, for sure. But you are absolutely the only two that I think I have done actual onstage standup shtick with because I've done that with both of you.
Rob Manning: Oh, right, yeah.
Mat Kaplan: But what really distinguishes you, I propose, and I think you've provided proof of this, is that the vast amount of creative spirit that you bring to your work. I'm betting that either of you could write a book about this and probably should, but it's the main thing that I want to talk to you about today. Do you see yourselves as being extraordinarily creative or even slightly above the norm, Rob?
Rob Manning: No, not even close. No, I-
Mat Kaplan: Well, we're done.
Andy Weir: All right, next question.
Rob Manning: I think part of it, you have to understand, it's not just the word creative. You could be creative in so many different ways. I paint abstract painting sometimes with my wife, and I struggle with trying to be creative. I'm a jazz trumpet player. I try to be creative there in that world. But I'm realizing the part that makes creativity work, in some sense, is the same thing that makes complex systems work within the laws of physics. In some sense, it's not... Because anybody can throw anything together. You can throw paint on a piece of paper, and you can have a lot of fun with that. There's no doubt about it. I wouldn't stop anyone from doing anything. But a lot of the most effective creativity, the one that catches people's attention are the ones that seem to work. They hold together in some context under constraints where people find solutions to an idea that allow you to either ask new questions or solve problems for you. I think artists do that. Musicians do that. When you try a musical phrase, build up on tension, you're kind of reaching a musical climax and then you solve it, come back to it, you've actually taken the listener on our journey. I think if you think about what we try to do when we build complex systems is that we have this journey in mind, an actual journey of trying to make something happen. But what we're trying to do is we're trying to find that space, trying to fly. I use the mental analogy of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker with the Millennium Falcon flying through the asteroid field and dodging... At some sense, our world of solutions is really about finding those sweet spots and flying through those cracks. That's why I'm impressed with what Andy does is that he actually tries to apply terrestrial, humanistic, physical constraints on the characters which gives people a place to realize that these are real limits and challenges. It's trying to, how do you find a sweet spot for solving your problems in life? Because all of us, as human beings, we're constantly surfing, trying to find solutions in our own lives for everything we do. Just waking up in the morning, remembering to pay your traffic ticket or just you paying your bills, just living your life is a series of mental obstacles.
Andy Weir: I have a traffic ticket right here.
Rob Manning: Right here. Thank you.
Andy Weir: I got caught speeding yesterday.
Mat Kaplan: Well, look at this. They both have traffic tickets. I feel left out. I don't have one to hold up.
Rob Manning: Not only do I have a traffic... we both have traffic tickets just right here on our desk-
Andy Weir: In front of us.
Rob Manning: ... to remind us to deal with them. That's why these things are so analogous to living the life of... I think that's why people find what work we're doing as engineers intriguing, even though it's really about science. It's about the overcoming obstacles and finding solutions and resolving the tension from the musical climax to it to an ending. I think that part of it is, I think, so essential, is representative in the work that I do and the work that Andy does.
Mat Kaplan: Andy, does that resonate with you? Also, do you think of yourself as a particularly creative, innovative person?
Andy Weir: Well, it's hard for me to say nice things about myself, but, yes, I do think of myself as being pretty creative. I don't always succeed in what I'm trying to create, but I am creative. I like making things. The books that I write are the thought experiment versions of making things, but also my hobby is just kind of being a maker. I like to make gizmos and devices and stuff. I've been working on a purely physical computer for calculating the day of the week for any given date. You just turn dials to set a date, and it will move gears and stuff around and output the day of the week that that was.
Rob Manning: Very cool.
Mat Kaplan: We have to hear more about this someday, Dr. Babbage.
Rob Manning: I love it.
Andy Weir: Because there's no other possible way of finding that information out. I've got to tell you, I have spent literally two years developing different... I'm on my 10th revision of this thing. None of the previous ones have worked to my satisfaction. Yeah, maybe this time. But it's always back to the drawing board, redesign. I love to make things. As for stories, one thing I've found is that if I make a setup, if I make a system where interesting stuff happens, then the story comes along pretty easily. My particular approach is to get real technical, get real detailed, much more detailed even than shows up in my books. You see maybe 10% to 20% of the research that I've done makes it into the book at all. I go way the hell down the rabbit hole. I'm like, okay, I came up with how to do a Mars mission, and then I say, here's an event that strands the guy. Well, now I know all the details of the Mars mission, so how can he make use of these things? It's fine how do they end up saving him, yada, yada, yada. The story kind of evolves naturally once you create the world in which it takes place. Same with Project Hail Mary. It was a really interesting problem that humanity is faced with, and the problem itself provides the tools for a solution, and then we go from there. Basically, I write very well-trodden science fiction concepts. My three books are about a guy who's stranded on a planet, a woman living on this city on the moon, and a guy trying to save Earth from an existential threat. It's a first contact story, the third one. So all these things have been done over and over again by science fiction authors everywhere. So I'm almost never coming up with a totally new concept. What I'm doing is taking well-worn science fiction concepts and doing it my way, and my way is like, all right, let's delve into the science of this. I have put thought into a time travel story. I spent a month trying to work out the physics to make sure that momentum and energy are conserved when you travel in time. It gets very difficult. I'm like, well, that's a problem because right away my little physics-obsessed brain goes like, if you can ever cause a failure in conservation of energy or momentum, either one, you can make a perpetual motion device, like period-
Mat Kaplan: Sure, yeah.
Andy Weir: ... guaranteed. If you give me any system at all that doesn't conserve momentum and energy, then I can give you a perpetual motion device. I can give you free energy.
Mat Kaplan: I get mail from these guys now and then.
Andy Weir: Free energy guys?
Mat Kaplan: Yes, right.
Andy Weir: That's why when everybody was excited about the EM drive, I was like, "I don't know what's going on, but I know it doesn't work." Because if you give me an EM drive, I will give you infinite energy because eventually the energy that you're putting... Because the EM drive allegedly creates propellantless propulsion based on a constant energy input. So eventually its kinetic energy will be greater than the energy being put into it.
Rob Manning: But, Andy, you're doing exactly what we do in the sense that you're trying to live with a bunch of constraints and you're trying to put it together into a puzzle to see if you can get to some goal, some outcome, some sort of vision. The vision is where the creativity really lives. But then when you put all these obstacles intentionally, in your case, intentionally in your wings. i.e., "Well, I want to follow laws of physics," you don't have to do that as an author, but you want to because that's part of-
Andy Weir: I want to.
Rob Manning: ... who you are. Actually, that makes it more fun because in some sense those are the cool obstacles that you're trying to find. That's exactly the world that I live in. Why I say I'm not creative? I'm not creative at every step. It's really about dodging... It's like a painter that's-
Andy Weir: Solving the problems.
Rob Manning: So it's like a painter who spends half their time trying to make themselves a new color with new dyes, trying to make that color that they just wanted, they needed for that particular application with the right color spectrum.
Mat Kaplan: A good-
Rob Manning: It's the same idea.
Andy Weir: An example of problem-solving creativity I always like to use is the cotton gin. The cotton gin is an incredibly... it's very straightforward. It was so straightforward, in fact, that the guy who invented it barely made any money at all because everyone could just make their own from stuff lying around their barns. But it's something nobody had thought of until somebody did. It's this very creative solution to a real problem that people were having at the time. I don't want to go too deep into the history of it or describe it, but if anybody's interested who's listening, just look up cotton gin, and you'll see an incredibly simple solution to a problem that had been plaguing the whole cotton industry. You were saying, Rob, about keeping true to the physics being my personal approach. It is, but also one thing I've found is that the physics of the universe that we live in are very, very good at being internally consistent.
Mat Kaplan: It's a good thing.
Andy Weir: So if I stick with real physics, then my fictional technology won't run into problems later. I just have to have to run the physics forward. So as I'm writing, I come up with, "Oh, what if he does this, then what would that thing do?" I'm like, "Well, I've kept within the realm of real physics, so what would real physics do?" I'm perfectly happy, I can enjoy soft sci-fi, Star Trek, Star Wars, although I would categorize Star Wars as technically fantasy just with a sci-fi veneer. I also like fantasy, so it's all good. I'm not dissing any of these properties. But when I watch Star Trek and I see the transporter, I have a lot of questions. I have so many questions. I'm like, transporter technology should be the exact center of all development from that point on. Oh, you can beam...? You can just send matter as energy beams to other places at presumably the speed of light-ish? Okay. Well, what? Not only that, but it's like you're taking something apart and it stays in a pattern buffer for a while, then you put it out. Couldn't you just solve anything? You're basically stopping time for that thing. It's like, oh, Rob is sick. Beam him into a pattern buffer, adjust it so he's not sick, and duplicating stuff. I have so many questions, and Star Trek is like, "Yeah, the answer to those is shut up." That's fine because it's fiction. You can do that.
Rob Manning: But yet it's inspired people. There's some fascinating quantum teleportation articles and discussions about transportation through a wormhole as recently tested, with Caltech researchers here recently, transporting a single qubit through a makeshift one-dimensional wormhole. But those ideas have, in some sense, inspired those people. We think those things and see if they can keep pushing, keep asking the question whether it's possible. But you're right. These guys, they needed a mechanism. I don't know if you read The Making of Star Trek. They do talk about this. "We need a way to get there, hurry, because this is going to take forever. The show is only [inaudible 00:41:21]."
Mat Kaplan: Roddenberry, he didn't want to have to subject people to shuttle missions-
Rob Manning: Exactly.
Mat Kaplan: ... to get them down to the surface of the planet [inaudible 00:41:28].
Andy Weir: Exactly, and they didn't have the budget. They didn't have the budget to film ships landing and taking off all the time, so they did the transporter, which is great. That's awesome.
Rob Manning: Well, one thing I've found as a science fiction nerd man with a lot of science fiction nerd friends is that every discussion of how a transporter works eventually devolves into a philosophical discussion of what is the human soul.
Mat Kaplan: Sure.
Rob Manning: It's only a matter of time before you get from one to the other.
Mat Kaplan: There's been some great science fiction writing-
Rob Manning: [inaudible 00:42:02].
Mat Kaplan: ... about exactly that topic. I don't know about you, but I want to stretch my legs. I'll be back with Rob and Andy right after this message from the boss.
Bill Nye: Hi, everybody. Bill Nye here, CEO of The Planetary Society. Everything we do, from advocacy for missions that matter to funding new technology to grants for asteroid hunters and sharing the wonder of space exploration with the world, only happens thanks to friends like you who share our passion for space. When you invest in the Planetary Fund today, a generous member will match your donation up to $100,000. Every dollar you give will go twice as far as we explore the world of our solar system and beyond, defend Earth from the impact of an asteroid or comet, and find life beyond Earth by making the search for life a space exploration priority. With you by our side, we'll continue to advocate for missions that matter for years to come. How about powering our work in 2023? Please donate today. Visit planetary.org/planetaryfund. Thank you for your generous support, and happy New Year.
Mat Kaplan: Rob, the other thing that struck me about what you were talking about, whether it was music or art or story writing or engineering with a goal in mind of the journey is the story element in that, building to a climax, which certainly Andy has demonstrated. He's very capable of taking us along on that ride. That also intrigues me, finding this element of story across all these different disciplines and life activities.
Rob Manning: It is. We do it. It's not that we set ourselves out to create those things. It's just that storytelling is what life really is. We're experiencing the stories once ourselves. I look back in the period since the early '90s when I really got involved in the Mars Exploration side, I look back at that journey, it boggles my mind. I mean, all the things that happened, things that worked, things that didn't work, how failures inspired new inventions, new ideas. If Mars Polar Lander hadn't vanished, it's still missing in action, folks, we can't find it.
Andy Weir: Oh hey, whoa, wait, hang on.
Mat Kaplan: Did you look behind the refrigerator?
Andy Weir: Wow, [inaudible 00:44:25] terribly.
Rob Manning: I know.
Andy Weir: This is Illinois, not Mars, you're terrible at this.
Rob Manning: Exactly. So I really feel that the story that what's happened has been just... For example, I was going to say, we wouldn't have invented either Spirit and Opportunity or the Skycrane maneuver, [inaudible 00:44:47], without that failure which inspired us to actually figure out, think out of the box, start turning things upside down.
Andy Weir: Still to this day, I believe the Skycrane maneuver was invented by Wile E. Coyote, and you guys just rolled with it.
Mat Kaplan: I guess it should have said Acme on the side.
Andy Weir: I look at that and I'm like, "What complete idiot...?" Oh wait, no, it was you, wasn't it?
Rob Manning: Yes, it was.
Andy Weir: Jokes aside, I do remember watching the Pathfinder landing. It was on the 4th of July, wasn't it?
Rob Manning: Yes, it was.
Andy Weir: Yeah, it was a 4th of July, and my nerd... This is the type of friends I have. We all got together so we could watch the Pathfinder landing on TV. We all had a party. My friend made a joke that to this day we still use. It's like, "Unfortunately, the humans didn't know that the tetrahedron is the official symbol for 'We declare war on your planet.'"
Rob Manning: That's great.
Mat Kaplan: That's good. That's very good.
Andy Weir: Oh, ey, ey. Then there was a great article that came out. It was making the rounds. This was before people really had emails, so it was making the rounds as Xerox copies and stuff like that. It was like, "The Martian Air Force says that the UFO sightings in the Chryse Planitia area were just swamp gas, and there's nothing to see."
Rob Manning: Don't look there.
Mat Kaplan: I will tell you a great David Brin very short story in which a lander comes down on Mars, lands on the son of the Martian ruler who then swears vengeance against all Earthlings, but especially The Planetary Society because he finds a DVD or a CD on this that is from The Planetary Society. "Oh, they're the ones who killed my son." So he comes to Earth, and he starts with killing Carl Sagan, and then goes from there. Sorry, I've told that story before.
Andy Weir: Brin has a certain sense of humor. Oh, yeah. I had this idea once for there being native Martians, soft sci-fi, sorry, native Martians and they find the Viking Lander. So they're like, "Well, this is alien technology. We should take this apart." They're like, "We don't know what this is." But, what is it? They decide it comes from the Hat Snake Cup people, and they just always call it the Hat Snake Cup people, these people like hats, snakes, and cups. I decided they read right to left. If you look at USA, it looks like a hat, a snake and a cup. So they call these aliens the Hat Snake Cup-
Rob Manning: Snake people.
Andy Weir: ... [inaudible 00:47:33].
Mat Kaplan: And develop an entire culture around the [inaudible 00:47:38].
Andy Weir: Well, they don't know anything about it. They're like, "These people like these five pointed stars. They got like 50 of them on this thing. Then it's like a bunch of stripes." We don't know what the heraldry of the Hat Snake Cup people is all about.
Rob Manning: Just to say, if they look closely at Mars Pathfinder, they will find a signature chip that we reduced all these signatures and stuff from kids and all over into a single piece of silicon. Of course, they'll find Homer Simpson who is obviously the one in charge on Earth.
Andy Weir: The ideal human. Well, to be fair, I did come up with this idea long enough ago that there was no Pathfinder yet. There was some Russian debris and the two Viking Landers were the only human things you'd find on Mars.
Mat Kaplan: Gentlemen, you are amply demonstrating once again that this was the right topic to bring up with you guys. Rob, can you teach creativity? Can you teach innovation both to individuals... and how do you get teams to work creatively? It's tough enough just to keep them all cohesive, keep them all talking to each other.
Andy Weir: Rob, let's talk about your favorite topic, project and people management. Let's get deep into that bullet point space that you like to spend so much time in.
Rob Manning: Exactly.
Andy Weir: Maybe we could talk about budgeting after this one, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, why not?
Rob Manning: That would really help.
Mat Kaplan: That's exciting. I think I'll wait for the movie.
Rob Manning: There's a lot of creativity in budgeting.
Andy Weir: Actually, there is.
Rob Manning: I don't think you can teach creativity itself, but you can create environments where creativity is amplified. So I think you can create a place, particularly how you manage the conversation with other people and when you create a yes/and environment where people aren't shooting down each other's ideas, who are saying, "Yes, that's a good idea." They're not just listening, but they're also writing them down. We have a place at JPL called Left Field which is a room which is just a huge wall, a whiteboard, and lots and lots of pens, and you can draw with whiteboard pens, and sticky notes and things like that. You throw ideas up there, and if you put yourself in those situations, you can create places and ideas where you enable the possibilities. That's one thing. You have the environment. But the second thing, you do need to have an appreciation of that. Although process is important, following the rules and patterns for making things happen, but ultimately all of the stuff that we do is done by human beings, not institutions, not big Snake Cup people, what-
Andy Weir: Hat Snake Cup people.
Rob Manning: ... Hat Snake Cup people, but people who are... We put these labels on ourselves, but we're really just a bunch of people who are trying to figure out how to organize ourselves without bumping elbows too much to allow ourselves to create and make something and contribute something. But you have to have that, hold that in your mind's eye, if you're a manager. A lot of people who look down are so focused on PowerPoint or bullets or the process, they forget to stop and listen and just sense the importance of thinking out of the box, turning things upside down, not being afraid to look at things that look wrong. You mentioned that the Skycrane thing. Well, who would in their right mind would put the rocket above your lander?
Andy Weir: No one. No one.
Rob Manning: Why would you do that?
Andy Weir: No one would do that.
Rob Manning: But yet, on the other hand, we did that on Pathfinder. We put a propulsion system, solid rocket motors above our airbag lander, and we said, "Well, what if that thing was actually not so funky and solid rockets that are just on/off switches, but let's see if we can actually put something that controls it and does a nicer job of controlling and letting it down.
Andy Weir: Does it actually play the Benny Hill theme song while that's going on-
Rob Manning: Yes, it does.
Andy Weir: ... or is that just in my head? Okay.
Rob Manning: It's one of the songs we play to wake up the engineers in the morning.
Andy Weir: Cool. [inaudible 00:51:45].
Mat Kaplan: That's inspiration, no doubt.
Rob Manning: Yes.
Mat Kaplan: Andy, a former ex-software engineer, obviously you collaborate-
Andy Weir: I'm a former ex-software engineer.
Rob Manning: [inaudible 00:51:57].
Andy Weir: Does that mean I'm back to?
Mat Kaplan: It's just software.
Andy Weir: Exactly.
Mat Kaplan: It's already come up. When you wrote The Martian, it became, to a degree anyway, a collaborative effort. You were benefiting from the thoughts, if not creativity.
Rob Manning: I had a lot of fact checkers, basically.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, yeah, right.
Andy Weir: That was great.
Mat Kaplan: What do you tell people when they come up to you and say, "Where do you come up with these ideas? How are you so creative?
Andy Weir: I get asked that, and I don't know what to answer. Usually, most of my stories start off with me thinking about some cool sciencey thing. I don't know how to put it. Like, The Martian started off not with me thinking about like, "Oh, I'm going to write a story." I was just thinking about, how can I update the Mars Direct profile to take advantage of our more advanced technology that we now have. So I say, I want to design a crewed mission to Mars, C-R-E-W-E-D, not C-R-U-D-E. I want a human-to-Mars mission. I want to design that. How do we make it work? When I was working on all that, I was like, "Well, one nice thing about it being ion propulsion is you can abort any time." Well, not any time, but there are lots of abort options. You don't have to wait until the next home in ellipse. That's kind of nice. Then I was like, "Well, let's say they left in an emergency, and someone was still there." First, I set up a system that I think is cool. Then comes the story. Same with Project Hail Mary. I was like, "I want to think about what we could do with a mass conversion fuel. What could we do with engines that have a specific impulsive of C, sorry, an effective exhaust velocity of C, a specific impulse of C over G. Specific impulse is stupid. Why do you people use it? You're a scientist for Christ's sake.
Mat Kaplan: I'm not a fan.
Rob Manning: [inaudible 00:53:55] crazy, but yeah.
Andy Weir: Effective exhaust velocity.
Rob Manning: It's, I know, history.
Andy Weir: Well, all these people are always like, "Ah, metric, metric, metric." Have you ever talked to astronomers about some of the stupid stuff they do that's like, pico arcsecond per fortnight or some stupid crap?
Mat Kaplan: How many parsecs can you make that run in?
Andy Weir: Yeah, Mat. The Kessel Run-
Mat Kaplan: I love Star Wars.
Rob Manning: The Kessel Run.
Andy Weir: ... requires you to go from two different locations and there's a black hole directly between them, so the shorter a distance you can make that run in it means the closer you got to the black hole-
Mat Kaplan: So it does make sense.
Andy Weir: ... so the bigger the risk you were taking. It's actually two black holes orbiting each other, and the only way to do the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs is to literally go between the two black holes-
Rob Manning: That would work.
Andy Weir: ... such that you don't touch either event horizon. It's extremely rare. It's extremely difficult and extremely brave. Only the very best ships like the Falcon can do it. So don't be dissing.
Mat Kaplan: And a pilot who probably has such guts that he would've shot first.
Andy Weir: Yeah.
Rob Manning: Definitely shot first.
Mat Kaplan: Rob, here's a quote that I found from you. "I always recommend that you should not worry about career advancement too soon. Spend a decade in your career doing real work, build something, use your hands, test it, learn from your mistakes. Put yourself out there on the edge where you will force your eyes wide open." Do you stand by that crazy advice?
Rob Manning: Oh, yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Then I want to get Andy's [inaudible 00:55:33].
Rob Manning: Absolutely.
Andy Weir: I think that's probably just something he says in performance reviews. "Yeah, I think you're going to need to stay in your current position for another 10 years."
Rob Manning: 10 years, yeah. That's too bad.
Mat Kaplan: That's good. I'm going to try that approach. Thank you. Still good advice?
Rob Manning: I think particularly in a situation where you learn about trial and error and making mistakes. We do have... I fear that-
Andy Weir: Which is why he has to stay in the position for 10 years.
Rob Manning: A little bit longer, maybe not 10 years, but certainly enough time to give yourself a chance to try things out and try it and fail and pick yourself back up again. We're seeing more and more rarefied engineers who are all aides their whole life. They've never put themselves in a situation where they could fail because the competition is so intense these days in college. It's really amazing. It's very expensive, and so they put a lot of effort. So as a consequence, they're not used to failing, and failure is kind of a scary proposition. Even the word has negative connotations. Yet, ironically, failure is actually a knowledge increase of an experiment, and it doesn't work. That's some of the best experiments, the ones that fail. It's about gaining knowledge and understanding of the world, universe.
Andy Weir: One of my favorite pieces of life advice that I've ever received wasn't intended to be life advice. It was simply a comment in the rule book of a role-playing game that I was playing. It wasn't intended to be life experience or anything. It was just a sidebar comment in a rule book. It's a role-play game. In that game, if you try something, even if you don't succeed, you get some XP in that field. The side note, it said, "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." I'm like, "I like that." And that's true. Words to live by.
Mat Kaplan: That is excellent.
Rob Manning: My biggest challenge is sometimes what we fail to do is the experience is probably for the things that just barely work. We think, "They work. Oh, we're done. We can to stop thinking about it."
Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:57:44].
Rob Manning: But if we look into it and we stare at every little possibility. So we're not good at that either. But I think you're right. It's about the stumbling along the way. That's where the journey is.
Mat Kaplan: I told you that there's one more thing I want to do with you, a hypothetical that I want to throw at you. Are you okay for time?
Andy Weir: I'm fine.
Rob Manning: Yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you. Call it the Rendezvous with Rama scenario, with apologies to-
Rob Manning: Oh, I love that.
Mat Kaplan: ... Sir Arthur Clark.
Rob Manning: I love that.
Mat Kaplan: Astronomers have detected a large object entering the Solar System from parts unknown, definitely from the outside. Let's say it's a kilometer or a mile across, so big. It's assumed to be a comet right up until it changes course, decelerates, and goes into orbit between Earth and Mars. What should humanity do? Where do we go with this? Andy, I'll start with you.
Andy Weir: First off, don't let the Hawaiians name it because I can't pronounce Oumuamua.
Rob Manning: Oumuamua, yeah.
Andy Weir: That was (beep). I'm sorry. There are lots of Hawaiian words that are pronounceable by other people in the world. So that's number one.
Rob Manning: I can help you. Oumuamua, Oumuamua.
Mat Kaplan: Oumuamua.
Rob Manning: Oumuamua.
Andy Weir: Oumuamua.
Mat Kaplan: Maki maki.
Andy Weir: Maki maki.
Rob Manning: Maki maki.
Andy Weir: I think it's pretty obvious that the first thing we would do is send a probe to go look at it, so someone would be on the phone with Rob that day.
Mat Kaplan: Rob says, no, but keep going.
Andy Weir: Rob says no?
Rob Manning: The first thing-
Andy Weir: If Rob says no, the first thing we do-
Rob Manning: We look at it through telescopes.
Andy Weir: No, no, no, no. Well, first thing do is to go and see about raising some money in the next fiscal year.
Rob Manning: Oh, yeah.
Andy Weir: Well, that's all Rob stuff.
Mat Kaplan: No, I'm joking.
Andy Weir: The first thing that would happen is someone's on the phone with Rob saying, "So, don't know if you read about this thing that changed course and established [inaudible 00:59:34]." I guess I would also see what human-controlled measuring object is physically closest to it. If it's taken a station between Earth and Mars, some of the Mars satellites might be good for getting a look at it, depending on where it is in that orbit. It could be much, much closer to Mars than it is to Earth.
Rob Manning: We did that fairly recently.
Andy Weir: I loved it, during Curiosity's landing, presumably Percy's, too. I remember during Curiosity's landing they used the-
Mat Kaplan: The MRO maybe, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Rob Manning: Yeah, the MRO.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, they did.
Andy Weir: I just remember that was cool because there was a certain window during which MRO was going to be within line of sight of the landing ellipse. It was like, "We don't know if we're going to find this out. It might land, and it might be after MRO has gone beyond the horizon, so we might have to wait until another satellite." But I just think it's really cool how we'll just go like, "Oh, hold on. We'll reuse those satellites and redirect them and stuff." In The Martian, of course, they pointed every satellite at [inaudible 01:00:40].
Rob Manning: We do it and we create... That's great. Actually, we were able to orchestrate... We worked together with Europeans, other agencies all over the place to mirror, to coordinate [inaudible 01:00:51]. It's really great. Of course, the nice thing about it, you know when you're going to land to the minute or less-
Andy Weir: That helps.
Rob Manning: ... years in advance. What is challenging is you have to kind of steal these resources. You need the tech telescopes or the Gemini or the other spacecraft. We'll probably end up using Green Bank for radar observations, bounce radar off of it, see what it might look like.
Mat Kaplan: My hypothetical object, my Rama technology.
Rob Manning: So you'd start with just all these other observations. You'll look at the infrared, look at the signatures, try to characterize it and have big conferences on it. I'm sharing notes. Meanwhile, people say, "Well, what are we going to do about it?" It'd probably initially be a fly-by mission because it's easier to get there, quicker. Takes a little more logistics to make a spacecraft can actually stop and visit. I think-
Andy Weir: You can learn a lot from a fly-by.
Rob Manning: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andy Weir: That would be awesome. Get [inaudible 01:01:51] out of there.
Rob Manning: Every now and then I get either emails, or what's even better is when I'm at events and conspiracy theorists or sometimes they're asking questions. They'll ask questions about, "Oh, it is pretty clear that there is life on Mars and NASA's suppressing that," and all that stuff like that. I'm like, "Do you have any idea what would happen to NASA's budget if we could show that there was life on Mars?" It's like, add two zeros on to the end of it. Jesus, there is no reason NASA would keep that quiet.
Andy Weir: I know, exactly.
Mat Kaplan: So true.
Andy Weir: Yeah, so true.
Rob Manning: Not to mention, we're terrible at keeping secrets, I just tell you.
Andy Weir: Oh, yeah, yeah. That's the other thing. It's like, the complexity of faking a moon landing? It's easier just to land on the moon. It's much easier.
Mat Kaplan: Back to my scenario, neither of you would say, if people said, "No, no. This is obviously technology that's far advanced beyond us. We should just turn out all the lights and hope they go away."
Andy Weir: That's not how we roll. That's not how human beings are. It's not just me and Rob. Humanity is curious. This is one of my talking points I say a lot when I'm giving talks is humanity is curious, and we have a desire to see what's on the other side of that hill.
Rob Manning: Yeah, absolutely.
Andy Weir: That is not just a quirk of the human mind. There's a lot of evolutionary theorists who believe that that's a survival mechanism of humans.
Mat Kaplan: Just last week, John Grunsfeld, former chief scientist of NASA, five-time astronaut, he was talking about exactly the same thing, Andy, and he believes it.
Andy Weir: It's just our desire to spread out and just go live anywhere we possibly can. The very instinct that makes us want to go live on the moon and live on Mars and stuff like that 50,000 years ago are the ones who said, "Maybe we can live in that God forsaken desert. I think I found a place that has some water. Let's give it a whirl." What that does is it spreads your species out over a large area so no local ecological collapse can kill you off. In fact, it was about 75,000 years ago or something like that, there was this monumental supervolcano went off and killed lots of life on Earth due to an extended winter. They think that the entire human population dwindled down to about 10,000 people during that-
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Andy Weir: ... and then built back up. If we hadn't been all spread out all over the world, that might have been it for us. If your entire species is in one floodplain, you or your species might not last long. So I just think it's neat that this survival instinct that maybe helped make us the dominant species on this planet is also what is driving us. We have this need, this built-in psychological need.
Mat Kaplan: Rob, resonates?
Rob Manning: Oh yeah, it does. I think there's still an energy barrier problem in terms of, for example, to extending that to other planets. I think you're absolutely right in terms of curiosity. Let's find out, "Well, if they could do it, why can't we do it?" So it really should open up all sorts of wonderful... Like, "Huh, maybe this isn't as impossible as we thought it was, [inaudible 01:05:17] solar system exploration. Let's find out how they did it. Let's learn." I believe there's a lot of technological work. For example, for people to live comfortably on Mars, it's really hard. It's kind of against the law to do this, international law, but even know if they didn't have those laws, we wouldn't see people flocking to build condos down on the South Pole. I just tell you, it's not that friendly.
Andy Weir: Well, there's no economic motive.
Rob Manning: There's no economic motive, and it's very difficult. It takes a lot of infrastructure support. There's no trees. It's hard to grow crops. Same thing with Mars. So there needs to be something to get us over that energy barrier, motivational barrier as well as technological barrier to try to make sure that it is comfortable. As Mark Watney knew, you can only go so far in potatoes.
Andy Weir: My explanation for that in Artemis, where they built a city on the moon, is the industry was tourism. Talking earlier just about how curious we are, of course we'd want to go take a look at it. I cannot imagine... There's just no scenario where people would be like, "That's clear evidence of some sort of alien intelligence. Eh, forget it." No. That's just not how we... As for the energy thing, transportation is always the biggest problem. I often tell people, imagine there was just a magic gate two meters across that led directly to the moon.
Mat Kaplan: Call it a stargate.
Andy Weir: A stargate, sure. There's a stargate that leads from here to the moon or even Mars. Let's say there's a stargate that leads from here to Mars. We keep our end of it in a vacuum sealed room so that it has a Mars atmosphere. Don't worry about the air. In other words, it takes functionally zero energy to go to Mars. I think there'd be people living there. I think honestly if there was a gate that led directly from Cleveland to Antarctica, there'd be people living in Antarctica. It's the distance and logistical complexity of getting there that prevents people from wanting to live there, not just the lack of resources. Also, if you lived in Cleveland, you'd probably prefer Antarctica.
Rob Manning: You might.
Andy Weir: No.
Mat Kaplan: Sorry folks.
Rob Manning: Mars and Antarctica share one thing. Unlike previous efforts for humans to migrate on the planet, they were able to find in situ resources that allow them to survive without having a logistical supply chain. What you're suggesting as well, a logistical supply chain through a stargate would do the job and you can just start... But that means somebody back on our end has to keep feeding these people.
Andy Weir: Well, for a while I would argue Mars has all the in situ resources that you need. It's just harder to make use of them. It has carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, if you have that, oh, and plenty of rocks to make [inaudible 01:08:16] out of.
Mat Kaplan: Stone soup.
Rob Manning: But energy is another one that's really challenging on Mars. That's what we struggle with.
Andy Weir: Oh, well, I've always assumed that colonization would be nuclear powered. Because this entire city on Mars is running a little low on energy? Okay, send another five kilograms of enriched uranium. That'll last them another 20 years.
Mat Kaplan: And we're getting there. That's something that we may just see, nuclear power again in space before long. You have been amazingly generous with both your time and your creativity. I'm going to throw just one more at you that didn't occur to me until just moments before we started this thing. What makes me really want to bring it up now, Rob, is that you talked about our existence as physical beings. That's the phrase you used about an hour ago. So what if this best of all universe is a simulation? What if we're just zeros and ones in some vast cosmic computer or mind? I like the response from Coach Beard in Ted Lasso, which you may have caught in the episode that focused on Coach Beard. He said, "If this is all indeed a simulation, which everything in my experience suggests that it is, then all we can do is tip our caps to the rascal pulling the strings." I'd only add, thanks for the ride. Rob?
Rob Manning: I have this middle ground view. People say, "Well, if you're living a simulation, then obviously there is some person who created the simulation who, like Andy Weir, wrote all the software and who are watching the simulation progress." But it's possible that we actually are bits, quantum bits, qubits. I think it's quite possible that we are... We talk about an information theoretic view of the reality: "It from bit." You've heard that expression. I do believe that one hypothesis for a different universe is that this information resides on a hologram of our universe. We don't think that's necessarily true for our expanding universe, but the ideas, I think, are correct in the sense I do think that what we see in the world around us is, in some sense, constructed from bits of information that are interacting with each other in a different place. Now, is that a simulation? No, it's a duality. It's that our universe lives in a different way. But without a doubt, I think we are bits of information and we build up.
Mat Kaplan: My mind is blown. Andy, are we all just characters in your next story?
Andy Weir: Well, definitely not my next story, but I've never been that excited about the whole "Are we living in a simulation argument?" because to me it becomes irrelevant. It becomes really more a matter of religion. It's like, we exist in a system that has a set of laws and rules that we have no choice but to follow: physics. Is it a simulation of physics? Is it something like that? Is there another universe outside of ours that has completely different physics and we are running in some form of a computer within there? It doesn't matter because we are confined to this one. These are the rules we have to play by. If you're playing chess, you don't get to bring in a checker. It's like, these are the rules that we live by. If there is indeed some way to, quote/unquote, escape the simulation, then that's still the rules that we live by. Then maybe there's a leak, a memory leak or something like that. But in the end, it doesn't matter. If we're in a simulation, all that means is that some entity created our reality, and that is what people call God. This is not a new concept. It's like, hey, what if the universe isn't just random, but it was indeed created by some higher power who was watching? So the whole simulation thing, it's like people are just starting to invent religion? Try to catch up. This is like a hundred thousand years old, folks. Humans tend to just repeat ourselves a lot. So I think the whole, "Ooh, are we living in a simulation?" is just a new way for people to invent religion without admitting it.
Mat Kaplan: Gentlemen, simulation or not, I am thrilled to share this universe with the two of you. Thank you so much for being, as far as I know, the last two external guests that may appear while I am the host of Planetary Radio. But I sure hope it's not the last conversation that we get to share. It has just been delightful. Thank you very much. I don't know. Do you want to say goodbye to each other?
Andy Weir: I'm sure I'll see Rob again sometime, but goodbye for now, Rob.
Rob Manning: Good to see you, Andy.
Andy Weir: Really, I just want to say, Mat, goodbye to you in this role. You've been just fantastic. I love your show. I've been on it more times than I can count, and I've always had a fantastic time.
Rob Manning: I'm going to say the same thing.
Andy Weir: Then, it sounds like something you say to a military man, but thank you for your service.
Rob Manning: Thank you.
Mat Kaplan: Man.
Rob Manning: It's true. You really have performed a major... What was important about what you do, that you've done over the years, is that you inspire people with our reality of our world and our universe. I think that's something that is something that I feel sure of because people are often living in a kind of quasi-world of their own. I think getting out there and looking and seeing the universe and seeing how we relate to it is what you're good at and what you're best at and what you've done so successfully.
Andy Weir: You're a great communicator, Mat. What you do is important, and you've done a lot of good for the world. I know you're not used to having the microphone turned around and pointed at you, but it's worth saying after 20 years-
Rob Manning: Very true.
Andy Weir: ... maybe someone ought to mention this to you.
Rob Manning: Absolutely.
Mat Kaplan: Well, listen, you two, it takes one to know one.
Rob Manning: Thank you.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you so much, guys. Take care.
Rob Manning: [inaudible 01:14:22] a treat. Thank you so much. See you both.
Mat Kaplan: Hey, guess what? It's time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. The chief scientist of The Planetary Society is here with us again, Dr. Bruce Betts. I have your gift. Here it is in a white styrofoam box, non-recyclable box.
Bruce Betts: Is there dry ice involved? Are there-
Mat Kaplan: No, no. No dry ice required. You can use it for dry ice if you like later. But I've already said too much. You'll have to stick around to the end.
Bruce Betts: This time, I will.
Mat Kaplan: The sooner you tell us about the night sky, well...
Bruce Betts: Oh, yeah. There are all sorts of planets in the evening sky. There's the party we've been having with Mars rising in the east a little. It'll already be up now around sunset in the east looking bright red but dimming as it gets farther away from Earth. Then Jupiter high in the sky looking very, very bright. Saturn moving over towards the west as the weeks go on, looking yellowish. In a surprise guest appearance, we'll have Mercury through the end of the month. You're going to need a low view to the western horizon shortly after sunset. And, and get excited because Venus is coming up underneath it, an even clearer view to the horizon to pick it up so far, but super bright below Mercury. Mercury will go away. Venus will join us for the next few months.
Mat Kaplan: Stay tuned for more Mercury fun. Mercury mirth.
Bruce Betts: Merthery. This week in space history, big week, 60 years ago, Mariner 2 became the first planet fly-by, successful planet fly-by, when it flew by Venus. 10 years later, Gene Cernan was taking the last steps on the moon by a human. I'm not counting Wallace and Gromit because it's different.
Mat Kaplan: Geez, Gromit.
Bruce Betts: Wensleydale. All right, you ready?
Mat Kaplan: Go.
Bruce Betts: Random Mat Kaplan fact.
Mat Kaplan: Hi, that was unexpected.
Bruce Betts: I ask forgiveness from the public. We've got three episodes left, Mat, with you as host guy. So I'm introducing Random Mat Kaplan Fact as a replacement segment for the next three weeks. Mat Kaplan's radio broadcasting career began in elementary school when his parents gave him a Remco AM Radio Transmitter as a kid. He could broadcast all of 50 feet. The world would never be the same.
Mat Kaplan: My poor brothers who were forced to be the audience. Well, I love it. Thank you.
Bruce Betts: Oh, you're welcome. Wait till we get to next week and the week after.
Mat Kaplan: Uh-oh.
Bruce Betts: Let us move on to the trivia contest, shall we, because that gets me one step closer to my glorious gift. As of Planetary Radio's 20th birthday, which occurred just a couple weeks ago, about how old would Planetary Radio be in Mercury years? How'd we do, Mat?
Mat Kaplan: I will simply let our poet laureate, Dave Fairchild, in Kansas respond. I think you'll like this. "We've dialed in so long ago to Planetary Radio where all have heard young Mat give word and Bruce with random facts, absurd. I tell you sir, we all concur that you're our spatial messenger..." Get it? MESSENGER.
Bruce Betts: Ah, MESSENGER.
Mat Kaplan: "... and 83 is what you'd be if you had lived on Mercury."
Bruce Betts: Indeed, 83 years young.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you, Dave. Another great job. Here's our winner, Reese Naylor, first time winner, in Ontario, Canada. Yep, just about to turn 83. He adds, "Congratulations Mat, on a fantastic run. Thank you for all your work." You are very welcome, Reese, and we are going to send you a Planetary Society Kick Asteroid rubber asteroid. I like that. Patrick Luski in California said, "You know, 83 is the new 20. You look great." Jerry Robinette in Ohio is just one of those who shared that, "Out at Pluto, 20 Earth years is a toddling 0.08 years." He says, "I guess it's true what they say. Location, location, location." Patricia Bennett in Australia, her very first entry, and she gave us some verse. "At 88 days, it's spinning around. With 1,000 episodes, it's 20 years bound. But if I were a Mercurian, I'd be 83. Maybe as old as Mat. Hee, hee." First and last maybe, Patricia. But, no, I'm very entertained. Thank you.
Bruce Betts: Yes, the trivia. Next trivia canes will involve Mat's age. Go ahead, man.
Mat Kaplan: A somewhat longer poem, but we'll go ahead and do it all, from Gene Lewin in Washington. "Comparing solar orbits, a ratio can be extracted. Between Earth and planet Mercury, a similitude is exacted. Solely measuring it in years, 20 here, there 83. But if we consider the amount of days, I wonder what that would be. Each Earth year has 365, 4 leap years. Add four days more, multiply by 20, and you get 7,304. But Mercury on its axis spins less than two days in its year. So 83 orbits round the sun, 124.5, my dear."
Bruce Betts: Wow.
Mat Kaplan: That is quite a piece of work. How about for this time?
Bruce Betts: I realized something, Mat, this trivia question will be answered during your final show as host.
Mat Kaplan: That's very true.
Bruce Betts: So I'm going to break all the rules and ask, oh gosh, I wish I had a good joke right now, to the audience out there, what has Mat Kaplan meant to you? Oh, no, it'll be great. You'll be really uncomfortable. You'll be embarrassed.
Mat Kaplan: Yes. I've been getting that for months. Ever since we made the announcement, people have been sharing these beautiful, beautiful thoughts.
Bruce Betts: 20 years and now you're rejecting my question? I should have brought Sarah in on this so we could grab the emails. Oh, here, how about this? Mat's retiring as Planetary Radio host. I think that means I will never talk to him again, but I'm not sure. But that's-
Mat Kaplan: You wish.
Bruce Betts: ... a separate issue. So now we're changing, the official question is as follows. After Mat retires as Planetary Radio host, what job would you like him to do? What do you envision him doing?
Mat Kaplan: I like that.
Bruce Betts: It can be serious. It can be funny. It can be-
Mat Kaplan: Profound.
Bruce Betts: ... profound, or just not profound, so something I would write. Okay, good.
Mat Kaplan: We have reached that point. Here's the box making noise. [inaudible 01:21:30].
Bruce Betts: I can see it on my little video.
Mat Kaplan: I'm going to open up. There we are. Okay?
Bruce Betts: Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.
Mat Kaplan: It is a coffee mug. I'll hold it up to the camera.
Bruce Betts: A Planetary Radio and blazing coffee mug.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, yes. But wait, there's more.
Bruce Betts: No way. Oh my gosh, there's a picture of Mat and Bruce recording at the beach. Yay. That's so cool. Thank you, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: Isn't it nice? It just jumped out when I needed to pick a photo. I'd forgotten all about this, but we were on Coronado Beach recording What's Up? It's a great photo.
Bruce Betts: Oh, that's cool. Thank you. And thank you everyone for going along on our memory-filled journey over this time period. That's a little less space and a little more, well, Mat Kaplan. Ew, sounds gross when I say it out loud.
Mat Kaplan: Say goodnight, Bruce.
Bruce Betts: Goodnight, Bruce. We've only done that like a hundred times over the past 20 years.
Mat Kaplan: That's less than 10% of the shows, because we've really done, I think, 1,106 shows. Of course, that includes Space Policy Edition monthly program. Yeah, we're well over a thousand.
Bruce Betts: All right, everybody, go out there, look up to the night sky and think about the squirrel outside my window that's eating a nut. Thank you, and goodnight. It's very cute.
Mat Kaplan: That was the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, Bruce Betts, who is now taking a photo of the squirrel eating a nut outside his window so that he can remember this moment with the squirrel forever. He joins us every week here on What's Up. Want to see Bruce's truly cute squirrel? It's on the episode page of planetary.org/radio. Next week, the best of Planetary Radio, which is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by our Space Nut members. Crack their secret at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.