How Andy Weir Engineered A Lunar City In ‘Artemis’

29:38 minutes

earth's moon

For his novel, author Andy Weir researched how to smelt aluminum in space, combat fire hazards in an enclosed moonbase, and run a lunar city’s economy in the world of Artemis. Weir discusses how wealthy tourists and day-to-day workers navigate life in this fictional urbanized moon.

And for humans to one day survive on the moon we’ll need access to medical care. George Pantalos, professor of bioengineering at the University of Louisville, joins Ira to discuss how he’s helping NASA prepare for future surgeries conducted in space.

Read an excerpt of Artemis here.

Segment Guests

Andy Weir

Andy Weir is author of Artemis (Crown, 2017) and The Martian (Crown, 2014). He’s based in Mountain View, California.

George Pantalos

George Pantalos is a professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery and professor of bioengineering at the University of Louisville. He’s based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow, broadcasting today from WFPL Studios in Louisville Public Media right here in Louisville, Kentucky. Later in the hour, we’re going to explore the brainy antics of a common neighbor for many of us– crows.

But first, the last Apollo mission to the moon happened nearly– what– half a century ago. And ever since, we’ve been talking about going back. So what would it take not to just land on the moon this time and explore it, but to really live and work there, to build a lunar city? My next guest has thought at all about this. In his new book “Artemis,” Andy Weir maps out a blueprint for what a working city would look like 240,000 miles from Earth.

And he applies that same type of meticulous research and geeky engineering he used in his last book, “The Martian,” to figure out how you would do things like smelt aluminum on the moon, build an economy, or most importantly, make drinkable beer. Andy Weir is here to break down with what it takes to hack it on the moon. Welcome back to “Science Friday.”

ANDY WEIR: Hey. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Our number– 844-722-8255. Let’s talk about this, Eddie. Is it not lunacy to talk about a lunar city?

ANDY WEIR: I see what you did there. Know I’m not laughing, but I do see what you did there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I’m so transparent. Tell us about the city and the meticulous way you laid out an incredible colony on the moon there.

ANDY WEIR: Well, thanks.

Well, the first thing I needed was I wanted– well, I set out with a goal of saying, OK, I want to write a story that takes place in a city on the moon. And the first thing I had to do was come up with why is there a city on the moon. A city doesn’t exist without some economic reason. So step one was the economy.

So the conceit of “Artemis” is that the price to low Earth orbit has been driven down far enough that middle class people can afford to get into space. And actually, I wrote a whole paper on that, and you can find that at “Business Insider” if you want to see it. But I came up with some numbers on how much it would cost in the future to send stuff to the moon, and it becomes worthwhile to have a tourist economy.

So then I said, all right. Now we can make a city on the moon that has a tourism base. And so I based the city off of the economics of Caribbean resort towns and stuff. Artemis is very close to the Apollo 11 landing site. That’s some major tourist draw, that sort of stuff. That was the quick part. Then I spent about a year working out all the science.

IRA FLATOW: So you became a lunar expert. What was the hardest thing– what was the hardest calculation you had to make or learn about?

ANDY WEIR: Well, basically, I had to learn a lot about smelting. And so basically, the moon– the Lunar Highlands area– that’s the part that’s bumpy as opposed to the smooth part– the Lunar Highlands, about 85% of the rocks just laying out on the surface are a mineral called anorthite. And anorthite is made of aluminum, silicone, calcium, and oxygen.

And if you smelt that, which means you break it apart into its component elements, you end up with, well, aluminum, calcium, silicon, and oxygen. And So this gives you aluminum to build your moon city and oxygen to fill it. And so that’s really astounding. This is, like, 85% of the rocks on the surface in the highlands. And so it’s like the moon is just saying, come on, colonize me. I dare you. The moon is made of moon bases with some assembly required.

But the most complicated part, for me, was figuring out, OK, how am I going to smelt these rocks. Well, I need a smelting facility. OK. How do you smelt anorthite? Well, a really good way would be to use a process called the FFC Cambridge process, which is a chemical deoxidization process that was actually invented just in the 1990s. So it’s pretty new.

And then I’m like, OK, well, how much energy would it take. Oh, my gosh, so much energy. So I made it clear that it couldn’t be powered by a solar farm. I’d need to have reactors on there. And it’s just that cascade of discovery of what do I need. OK, what do I need to get what I need? What do I need to get what I need to get what I need, and so on? And that led to me basically designing the whole city before I ever came up with a plot or characters for it.

IRA FLATOW: But in doing this whole thing, as you say, you said to yourself why aren’t we going back it if it’s quite possible to do that.

ANDY WEIR: Well, it’s not possible to do this in the real world just yet. I can answer the reason why we’re not going back– there’s no money to be made. The Apollo mission was– the Apollo program was really to show that we could and to prove that we could. And it’s almost like building the pyramids kind of thing. It’s like, hey, we did this. It’s amazing. We’re proud of it, and we will always be proud of it. It’s something that, in 100 years, Americans will still be like, we did that.

But in terms of a colony, in terms of people moving there, emigrating there, making and building their lives there– well, there has to be an economic reason for that. And you’re not going to get an economic reason until there can be regular transport to and from the moon at a price that middle class people can afford.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. In your last book, “The Martian,” you had the main character engineer his way through the plot. What did you learn from writing that book on the technical side? How did you set up building the world in “Artemis?” What did you learn from that?

ANDY WEIR: Well, I made a few mistakes in “The Martian,” scientific mistakes. And so I actually put even more effort into being scientifically accurate in “Artemis.” So for instance– well, some were mistakes. Some were just things I didn’t want to deal with.

So for instance, in “The Martian,” I said, oh, Hab canvas is this magical material that blocks radiation. I said, oh, it’s a radiation-balking material. Well, there is no such thing that’s a centimeter thick that will stop the radiation that will bombard you when you’re outside of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field.

And so for “Artemis,” I actually did account for it. The hulls of the city are– it’s basically a double-hulled system of six centimeters of aluminum, a meter of crushed lunar rock– basically sand– and then another six centimeters of aluminum. So people inside the city get– it reduces the radiation exposure to roughly the same as what you get on the surface of Earth, or maybe even less.

IRA FLATOW: In “Artemis,” as opposed to “The Martian,” it’s not NASA or a space agency that’s running the place. It’s Kenya, a country. That’s interesting that you chose that.

ANDY WEIR: Yeah Well, I firmly believe that we’ve reached the point in the real world, in private space flight or commercial space flight– and I’ve heard this from multiple sources from people working on these things– that the main impediment to private space ventures– like little satellites, little things like that– is no longer technology. It’s now policy. Our space policy, the things that our government makes you do in order to get permission to put something into space, is now what’s really holding people back.

So what I did was I created this fictional scenario where the government of Kenya seizes on that as an opportunity to draw the entire global space industry into Kenya. So first off, they just make all of their policies super duper friendly and non-intrusive to the space industry. They make a bunch of special laws. Hey, you can go ahead and do union busting. This isn’t a nice thing. They wanted to bring the industry in.

And they also have a natural resource that very few countries have in that they’re on the equator and that they’re on the east coast of their continent. So this means that, first off, you can launch from the equator itself, which means the Earth’s natural rotation gives you about 1/16 of the total velocity you’re going to need to get into orbit, which is not negligible. That saves you a lot of fuel.

And then second off, you always launch east. So that means you’re launching out over the ocean, so there’s no safety concerns. So Kenya is a real good location to put a launch complex.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And it’s interesting that in setting up your town on “Artemis,” a series of connected pressurized bubbles. Tell us why you decided on that.

ANDY WEIR: Well, each bubble is– well, the first bubble that they built is 100 meters in diameter, and all the others are 200 meters in diameter. And they all have that double-hulled system that I described earlier. And they’re spheres, which are half underground.

So if you look at Artemis from the outside, it looks exactly like your 1950s novels told you it should look like– a bunch of apparent domes on the landscape. But there is as much underground as above ground. Now, the reason I do that is spheres are the most efficient shape for holding in atmospheric pressure. And the reason they’re partitioned is so that you can move people around if there is a breach.

So there is a double-hulled system, so both hulls would have to breach in order for air to leak out. But there is no need to take unnecessary risks. So let’s say you’re in one bubble, and one of the hulls has a problem, and it breaches.

The other hull is still holding in the air just fine, but you calmly evacuate everyone out of that bubble into the other bubbles, seal off the problem bubble, repair the hull, then bring everyone back in. So it’s a very, very safe system for ensuring that there’s never a sudden decompression that kills– there’s 2,000 people living in that city. You don’t want to take a risk of a disaster of that magnitude.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, the pressure doesn’t have to be totally as high pressure as we have on the surface of the Earth, you point out.

ANDY WEIR: Right. The pressure in Artemis is actually about 20% of the pressure at Earth’s sea level. And the reason for that is that the air is all pure oxygen.

Now, a lot of people think pure oxygen and immediately think Apollo I disaster, everything is flammable. Well, that’s not the case, because the air pressure is lower. The partial pressure– meaning, basically, the density of oxygen atoms flying around– is the same as it is on the surface of Earth. So if you set something on fire in Artemis, it would burn at the same speed as something would at sea level on Earth.

So why go to the trouble of doing this, get rid of everything that’s not oxygen in the air? Because it reduces the total pressure of the city and makes the engineering constraints on those bubbles easier. They only have to hold in 1/5 of the pressure.

And this is, by the way exactly, what the Apollo missions did. The command module, the lunar module, they were about 20% of Earth’s atmosphere of pure oxygen, because it made the engineering easier, simpler, and more safe.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’re going to come back and talk lots more with Andy Weir about his new book “Artemis.” And it’s a really interesting read if you want to read something that’s kind of cool. You can also talk to us about it– 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. And also tweet us @SciFri. We’re going to take a break, and we’ll continue talking with Andy Weir about Artemis and how to hack living on the moon. If you have questions about lunar travel, now is the time to ask. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. My guest this hour is Andy Weir. You know him as author of “The Martian.” And we’re talking about his latest book called “Artemis.” And one of the questions I had in reading your book– and quite obvious that even 100 years from now, the food hasn’t gotten any better in space.

ANDY WEIR: No, it sure hasn’t.

IRA FLATOW: Why? Why is that?

ANDY WEIR: Well, while it is much cheaper, in the setting of “Artemis,” to get stuff to the moon, it is not free. And transporting freight to the moon is expensive. In fact, I’ll spare you 10 pages of economic analysis and math. It turns out to be about $160, in 2015 dollars, to put one kilogram onto the surface of the moon.

So that means if you want to eat nice, tasty food that was made on Earth, like steaks or something like that, it’s going to end up costing quite a lot of money. So most people in Artemis– bear in mind, it’s a tourist-based economy. So there’s the nice, glitzy hotels and casinos area, and then the more modest and austere places where the residents who live and work there are. And they can’t afford that sort of thing.

So what they end up eating is– well, it’s chlorella algae, but they all call it gunk. And algae is actually really cool in terms of potential space nutrition, because a lot of it can be grown in a very, very small area in a very, very quick amount of time, a very small amount of time. So you can have vats that are just basically algae farms cranking this stuff out.

And also, based on the inputs that you give it– the amount of light, the frequencies of light, and the nutrients that are in the bath to start with– the algae will either generate more protein or more sugars so you can really fine-tune the nutritional value of it. So it’s actually nutritionally extremely good for you, but it tastes awful.

And I’ve had some. I was ambushed by this. In an interview a few days ago, someone said, oh, we brought you some chlorella algae, some dried chlorella algae here. We’ll just mix up some water. There is your gunk. Give us a taste.

And I can tell you, it’s awful. It tastes like– so you take the taste of seaweed. I don’t know if you eat sushi. But you take the taste of seaweed, and then magnify it by about 1,000, and then give it an aftertaste that basically never goes away. So it’s not a great taste.

However, also within the context of “Artemis,” what you do if you’re poor is you buy gunk locally, but you also buy, imported from Earth, extracts, so flavor extracts that you mix with the gunk to make it taste palatable. Although it still doesn’t taste that great.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m glad you didn’t say it tastes like chicken, or else we’d be done here. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Kate in New Smyrna, Florida. Hi, Kate.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

CALLER: Hello. Thank you for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

CALLER: I’m really excited to hear this on my way home from work. I’m a writer here in Florida. And my father, Jim Davis, was one of the first American rocket scientists in Huntsville and a chief designer on Apollo, one of the founders of the shuttle program. And I think he would be just thrilled to death with the book. I really enjoyed “The Martian.” And he was actually the original steely-eyed missile man. That come from his experience with the Apollo 13 disaster. And he led the team that designed the filter. And so I’m just thrilled with the book and excited to read this next one. And I think my father would just love this.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you Kate, for calling.

ANDY WEIR: Well, thanks.

IRA FLATOW: You can’t get a better recommendation that that, Andy.

ANDY WEIR: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I love to hear that sort of thing.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk also about the stuff that goes on in the moon. In the book, you set up a whole industrial complex there. There are industries and companies making glass an d products on the moon. But at the same time, the colony still needs to import different materials from Earth. In your research in doing all of this, did you find there are certain things that are made more efficiently on the moon than you could do on Earth?

ANDY WEIR: Oh, absolutely. Well, the main thing is if you can make it or manufacture it on the moon at all, it’s generally best. Because that way, you don’t need to ship it from Earth. So in terms of simple materials– now, I’m not talking about things like complex electronics, because it takes an entire industrial base to be able to do things like turn silicon into CPUs.

But aluminum is far better to manufacture locally. Glass is also far better. Because remember, I mentioned anorthite. It also gives you silicon is another one of those elements. And you mix the silicon with the oxygen, and you have glass. So you can make as much glass as you want.

Calcium, believe it or not, has a lot of uses. Most people think of calcium as being basically chalk. But in its pure form, it’s a metal, and it’s actually far– it’s an even better conductor than copper. So you can make wire out of metallic calcium.

Now, the reason we don’t do that on Earth is because it oxidizes very quickly. So in the presence of oxygen, and especially in the presence of water, it’ll just effectively rust. That’s not a problem if you’re running power lines along the lunar surface. So there’s a lot of these things that you can do locally.

And of course, anything that’s craft or artisan-based, since you have a population of 2,000 people living there, you have the workers– the trade craftsmen and women who can do it for you on site.

IRA FLATOW: Along with all the graft that goes along with– that you import.

ANDY WEIR: Along with all the graft, yes. Absolutely. This is not some utopian society. Humans are humans. And the same emergent behavior will happen in a city on the moon as it would in any other city.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Andy Weir, author of the new book “Artemis.” And we’ve been talking about how to engineer a lunar city. But for humans to one day survive on the moon, we’ll need a way to treat any serious medical issues that could arise while in microgravity.

And there are efforts underway to study what it would take to perform certain types of surgery in space. And joining us now to talk about this is my guest, George Pantalos. He’s professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Louisville. Welcome to “Science Friday,” Dr. Pantalos.

GEORGE PANTALOS: Good afternoon, Ira. After listening to your program for many years, it’s a treat to join you and your listeners.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Thank you very much.

So let’s get right into surgery. If we needed to perform space surgery tomorrow, what would we be able to do? I’m saying what can we do at this point in time.

GEORGE PANTALOS: What we can do at this time would be very simple things like closing some injury to the skin. Beyond that, there isn’t any surgical capabilities. But we’re looking ahead 10 to 15 years from now when we’ll have crews going to the moon, possibly establishing an international lunar colony, so something very different than the city that Andy describes in his book.

IRA FLATOW: So you would have to train physicians, or at least people capable of doing some sort of rudimentary surgery.

GEORGE PANTALOS: That’s correct. In fact, we have two different projects, one with the NASA Flight Opportunities program, one with the new NASA Translational Research Institute for Space Health, where we’re looking at both the technology and the gizmos that we’ll need to do that as well as what do you do to train a crew medical officer who might be a physician, but may not be a surgeon, on how to do at least basic surgical tasks to treat a problem that might arise.

Is it possible for a robot, a dexterous robot that would be on a mission like that, to actually serve as a medical surgical assistant? Because you have so few crew members on your spacecraft to begin with. And since some conditions don’t need to be addressed immediately, could you potentially launch with fewer surgical instruments, and then if the need arises, use the 3D printer that would be part of your spacecraft to print some of the surgical instruments and other supplies that you would need when you need it?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about how the moon’s microgravity might affect what you can do. Is it helpful or hurtful?

GEORGE PANTALOS: Let’s put it this way. You have to pay attention to it. I’ve spent a fair amount of time working in zero gravity, lunar gravity, and Martian gravity. And from my experience, I’ve adapted the saying that a little gravity goes a long way.

So you don’t have to worry about things floating away from you when you’re on the moon like you do when you’re in Earth orbit or on your way to Mars. But you still have to pay attention to the fact that there is 1/6 gravity.

So for example, if you’re setting up an IV fluid infusion on the Earth, you count on the hydrostatic pressure, or the 1G acceleration, to move that fluid through the line at the rate that you need. In fact, you usually have a little dial on it to reduce the flow rate so it doesn’t go too fast.

If you did the same thing on the moon with 1/6 gravity to drive the fluid flow, it’s not going to go nearly as fast. So you may actually have to anticipate the need to pressurize that bag of intravenous fluid in order to get enough fluid into your patient.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Do we have enough experience from all the space– International Space Station, all the missions we’ve had in zero gravity or microgravity, to know how, for example, infections might spread differently in the body or people might catch things from one another.

GEORGE PANTALOS: That actually is an active topic for research done by a group of researchers that looks at immunology and infectious disease spreading. And it’s complicated, partly because you’re in an enclosed environment, although they have a very good air cleaning system onboard the space station, and they would on a future spacecraft.

But the other thing is that the immune response system, after prolonged experience to weightlessness, may change, and it may not be as efficient as it is for those of us that live in a constant 1G environment. So that’s one of the many research issues that NASA is looking at right now.

IRA FLATOW: Andy, did you imagine what it would be like to have a hospital or an operating room or medical people in “Artemis?”

ANDY WEIR: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It comes up toward the end of the book. And really, my approach was that– Artemis is– of course, it has this whole infrastructure, so they have fully-trained medical professionals there. But ultimately, if you have a serious problem that needs to be addressed by more advanced medicine, you have to go back to Earth.

So really, Artemis’s medical capabilities are limited to dealing with emergencies and dealing with long-term medical care, but other than that, just making sure that you can be kept stable and safe for the comparatively short trip back to Earth, which is seven days.

GEORGE PANTALOS: And Andy, you bring up a key point there. Right now, if a critical problem came up on the space station, the crew member could be stabilized and at a hospital on the ground in six hours. But on the moon, it’s at least three days away. And if you’re halfway to Mars, it’s four months away. And so because of that extra time is why we’re looking at what additional advanced health care capabilities do we need to consider providing for an exploration situation.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Andy Weir, author of “Artemis,” and George Pantalos, professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky.

So where do you see this going, Doctor? Are we making progress? Is there any one area that you’d like to see more progress made than another?

GEORGE PANTALOS: There are many different groups around the United States that are looking at that. In fact, we had a symposium a couple of years ago to look at what capabilities do we have now and how could those capabilities be advanced to something that we need in the future.

And there certainly is a lot being done. One of the challenges that any consideration for spaceflight has to consider is how much does it weigh, how much power does it take, how much learning does it take to use it, how much resources is it going to consume in the process. Because all of those things– you have to try to keep them at a minimum.

So for example, again, getting back to the concept of using a robot as an assistant, chances are there will be a robot on an exploration mission to perform several different tasks. So it’s a matter of having the robot programmed so that they can switch from helping out with geologic exploration to helping out with an emergency appendectomy and everything in between. So you maximize the amount of multitasking all of your equipment and all your supplies and all of your crew members can have, because you do have such limited resources in such a limited space.

IRA FLATOW: Andy, now that you’ve gone to Mars, you’ve gone to the moon, where are you going to next?

ANDY WEIR: Actually, I just want to stay on the moon for a little bit.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?

ANDY WEIR: Yeah. I’d like to write a bunch of stories that all take place in Artemis. I feel like I’ve got a pretty solid and interesting setting here, and I’d like it to be my personal sandbox for fictional stories– not necessarily the same characters being focused on, but a shared setting among several novels.

But I’m going to hold off a bit. The book just came out a few days ago, so I’m going to see what the general response to “Artemis” is before I start pouring a bunch of effort into sequels.

IRA FLATOW: Do we have a movie contract yet? Any movie?

ANDY WEIR: Well, we do, actually. 20th Century Fox has already bought the film rights. And they have attached the directing duo of Chris Miller and Phil Lord to direct. And they’re working on picking a screenplay writer to do the adaptation right now. So that’s where that sits.

IRA FLATOW: We were trying to figure out who to have as the female lead.

ANDY WEIR: That’s a tough call.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because she’s very central to the book.

ANDY WEIR: She is, obviously. And the prevailing opinion from what I’ve– you’ve got to bear in mind, as the writer of a book, you’re just an excited observer peeking in through the windows of the film industry. You have no say. You have no authority.

But it seems to me that they are very, very dedicated to the concept of actually getting someone who’s ethnically right. They want to get someone who has at least the correct complexion to be a Saudi woman.

However, also, Jazz is fairly young. Jazz is the main character. She’s fairly young. She’s in her early, mid-20s. And so they may end up saying, well, we’re going to have to discover someone. And then to get the star appeal necessary to get a movie greenlighted, then maybe the other characters might be big names. But they’re firm on the ethnicities.

IRA FLATOW: Well, your character certainly has an attitude, if I might put it that way.

ANDY WEIR: Yes, she does.

IRA FLATOW: That your characters in “The Martian” did not have. So that will be a challenge to find.

Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Good luck with the book.

ANDY WEIR: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” and now the new book “Artemis,” and also George Pantalos, professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Louisville. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, bird brain doesn’t have to mean stupid. No. Because if you look at the brainy antics of the crow– wow, crows are pretty smart. If you have them in your backyard, if you watch them, you know how smart they are.

Plus, what killed the passenger pigeon? There are new clues which we will divulge if you stay with us after the break. We’ll be right back.

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