Productivity

Australia's Martian: This Physicist, Soldier And Comic May Leave Earth Forever

My name is Josh Richards — I’m a physicist, former soldier, and stand-up comedian. I also happen to be one of 100 people shortlisted as astronaut candidates to Mars One, the international not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the permanent human colonisation of Mars.

 

During my degree I found out we had the technology to land humans on Mars but not to bring them back, and I’d asked why we didn’t just go anyway. My first solo comedy show was all about the science and religion of doomsday, and I’d ended it with a hopeful note that if an extinction level event was about to occur maybe it’d be what we needed to finally leave this planet and explore more of the universe. So in September 2012 — just days after finishing my 4th year performing at the Edinburgh Fringe — I sat down to start researching and writing a comedy show about sending people one-way to Mars.

I typed “Mars One Way” into Google, and immediately found Mars One — an organisation planning to send people to Mars as part of a one-way colonisation. Mars One had made its first substantial press release just 3 days before, announcing that in early 2013 they’d be opening for astronaut applications. They wanted to send the right people to become humanity’s ambassadors on another planet — regardless of nationality, gender, religion, or sexuality. So instead of writing a comedy show complaining that we as a species had the capability to colonise other planets but were too afraid to take that giant leap without a return ticket, I signed up for a one-way mission to Mars to help turn us into a dual-planet species.

What thoughts went through my head about leaving Earth behind forever when I became a finalist for Mars One? An overwhelming sense of relief.

Speaking to Dr Norbert Kraft in early December 2014, I was one of the first of the 660 candiates to take part in the psychological interview phase. Which also meant I was one of the candidates who waited the longest when the results were announced in February 2015.

I’ve always had contingency plans in the event I didn’t pass a phase of Mars One’s selection, and every step of the way the opportunities outside of Mars One have gotten better and better. But I’ve always put everything on the line for this and never swayed from the path because I know every day I’m involved is another day I’m directly championing the human exploration of other planets. Being chosen as one of the final 100 candidates gave me a profound sense of relief in knowing I’m still very much on that path.


Preparing For Mars

To celebrate the Blu-ray/DVD release of The Martian, Josh recently undertook a five-day public challenge to survive in a simulated Martian base at Sydney’s Circular Quay. What did he learn that might be applied to the Mars One mission?

The biggest lesson from the experiment was in recognising the disconnect between how busy I looked and how busy I actually was. With a huge number of jobs just to keep things clean and organised; maintaining the communication, video cameras and computer systems in the extreme heat of the hab; and the addition of different challenges such as the oxygen alarm on Sol 2 or the heat-loss on Sol 4; I was working flat-out in there for 5 days straight and regularly forgot to eat. What limited downtown I had was spent recording video journals and responding to social media and press requests. I had a little time to play ukulele late on Sol 1, but barely had a chance to play for the rest of my time in the hab.

“Humans can achieve absolutely extraordinary things if we put aside our difference and work together in the service of something bigger than ourselves.”

On Mars with a crew of 4 in a much larger habitat, things will be far less hectic.

With a 3-20 minute time delay, the pressure to respond to press and social media immediately will also ease. But the biggest lesson was that you might be working flat-out, but because the people outside can only see you moving around a small room through a video camera (or glass) it can LOOK like you’re bored — nothing could be further from the truth. So it’s important for the folks in mission control not to try to add “just one more thing” because they THINK you’ve got time to do it.

I know Mars One WILL happen, but only if people believe space exploration is a worth the time, effort and risk. Humans can achieve absolutely extraordinary things if we put aside our difference and work together in the service of something bigger than ourselves, and I’m sure that every one of the remaining 100 candidates understands that they’re involved with something far bigger than who they are as individuals.

Personally I started making changes to my lifestyle the moment I read about Mars One and decided right there in that little Brighton cafe that I’d sign up for it. Within months I’d moved from the UK back to Australia — as much as it pained me, I knew Australian schools and the Australian media would be more interested in hearing from an Australian candidate than the UK would. My time with the military meant I lived a pretty spartan existence already, but over the last 3 years I’ve actively sought ways to reduce my personal possessions and attachments. While I would never have gone done the “traditional” path of marriage and children, my romantic relationships have had to evolve to the prospect that in 10 years I may not be on this planet anymore. My upcoming comedy show “Cosmic Nomad” is entirely about how my life has changed by being a Mars One canidate, and even my global tour of the show is based around living out of a backpack, living off the land and carrying only what you need.


Virtual Reality And Drones

Virtual reality and robotic missions are fantastic, and form a vital element in the exploration of space, but they’re only part of the picture. Robots may not need sleep, oxygen or food… but compared to humans they also kind of suck at science.

It’s been argued that one person on Mars could have collected more data in 3 days than the Curiosity rover collected in it’s initial 2 year mission. A human can walk over to a rock, easily notice differences in it’s geology, and then decide if it’s worth collecting a sample for analysis – a process that could take weeks with an Earth-controlled robot on Mars.

“Robots may not need sleep, oxygen or food… but compared to humans they also kind of suck at science.”

It’s not just the enormous time delay in Earth-Mars communications (3-20 minutes each way because of the speed of light) that holds up remote controlling a robot on Mars or using virtual reality — robots are also limited to the instruments and tools you send them into space with.

A human can easily repair or improvise a tool to achieve something, whereas a robot lacks that versatility. So while robots and virtual reality are great ways to learn more about our universe, they should always be an extension of human exploration — not a replacement for it.


There is considerable precedent for humans operating long-term in small closed environments that are far smaller than what we will be living in — such as Antarctic research stations and aboard nuclear submarines. After the initial 48 hours in my 81m³ habitat I felt quite comfortable with the reduced room – you just needed to plan where you moved equipment a little more carefully, and I made a special effort to secure my own personal space at night by placing tarps across my bed area.

On Mars the initial crew of 4 will have approximately 1000m to share (250m³ each) with our own private quarters – we may not be able to run around outside whenever we like, but we’ll adjust quickly and it certainly won’t be claustrophobic inside.

There’s no need for us to wear spacesuits inside the habitats — just like the International Space Station — which has been continuously inhabited for more than 15 years now. Our habitat on Mars will be pressurised to make it a comfortable “shirt-sleeve environment” with highly regulated temperature, pressure and humidity.

We’ll also be conducting regular EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activities) suited up outside the hab. So we might not feel the wind on our faces, but we’ll still get to see the sky fairly regularly.

Leaving Earth

Mars One asked us to list three things we’d like to take one-way to Mars for our public candidate profile, and I still stand by what I said 3 years ago: a ukulele, an ebook reader, and a video camera. 3 years later and knowing what I know now though, I could easily read ebooks on one of the tablets we’ll need in the habitat, and there will be plenty of cameras to document our journey and life on Mars. So I’m pretty sure a ukulele would be my only personal item.

When Shackleton’s “Endurance” was crushed in pack ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and the crew then forced to live on the ice for months and drag their lifeboats hundreds of miles, Shackleton ordered his men to leave behind everything except their food and no more than 2lb of personal items per man. The one exception he made was Leonard Hussey’s 5 string banjo (weighing 12 lb). Shackleton referred to it as “vital mental medicine” for the survival of the expedition, and I see my ukulele — and learning to play David Bowie’s “Starman” while I was in the hab — as being no different to that.


I have a huge amount of experience working in small, high-performance teams with the military and the space industry, and it’s where I absolutely thrive and operate at my highest potential. Operating in a confined environment is obviously an additional stressor, but it’s all about displaying expeditionary behaviour by respecting everyone you’re working with, while also recognising your own need for personal space.

Being weightless also adds (quite literally) a new dimension, where you can spread out through the entire room rather than just the floorspace. So while the spacecraft we use to get to Mars may not have much more internal volume than the 3x3x9m habitat I lived in for 5 days, we’ll be able to use it’s volume more effciently during the 7 month trip to Mars.

Goodbye Bacon

Obviously missing friends and family will be a huge factor, but I’ve also been a nomad for years — stay in touch the best you can via email, making the most of the time you have with the people around you, and recognising that you’re involved with something that is far bigger than the individual and will benefit our entire species makes all of it much easier.

“These days I’m much more honest about what I’ll truly miss — bacon.”

I used to say that I would miss scuba diving, but it wasn’t until recently I realised that what I loved most about scuba diving was the sense of weightlessness and the relative quiet of being under water. Being the only people on a planet certainly keeps the noise and bussle down, and 7 months in zero-g as we travel to Mars followed by the rest of our lives in 38 per cent of Earth’s gravity should give me my weightlessness fix.

These days I’m much more honest about what I’ll truly miss — bacon. Everyone asks me what I would do with my last day on Earth? Eat bacon, because we’re not taking any pigs to space with us. Although I hear there’s a species of Japanese seaweed that tastes just like bacon when it’s fried, and we’ll be running hydroponic systems for crops on Mars. So as long as I can grow underwater seaweed-bacon trees in 38 per cent gravity, then I’ll die on Mars a very happy man.


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