Space – Choosing a Crew for Mars

With Mars One’s next astronaut selection round later this year looking to bring the current crop of 100 candidates down to 18-36 who will then start full-time training, I figured it was time to talk a little about how the next round will progress and what the selectors have said they want from the first Martian colonists.

When most folks talk about finding the “best” people for a job, especially when it’s space-related, there’s unfortunately one default reference pretty much every one leaps to:

It’s hardly a popular opinion, but the truth is today the “The Right Stuff” is a fantastic catalog of what NOT to look for when selecting astronauts for a mission to Mars. The Mercury program (and consequently “The Right Stuff”) was all about flying solo: selecting the best trained and most technically proficient pilots the US military had – who were the right size – and launching them alone on the US’s first foray into space. They had to meet incredibly stringent requirements: only test pilots under 40, no taller than 180cm (5’11”), no heavier than 82 kg (180lb), with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent (uncommon in 1959), and with over 1,500 hours flying time to meet even the basic requirements to apply at all. And don’t think the Russians were doing things differently back then: a huge factor in Yuri Gagarin being the first human in space was at 158cm (5’2″) and 70kg (153lb) it was easier to fit him inside Vostok 1. 

Good-sized hands though. The best hands. Very beautiful hands. Slightly large, actually.

I don’t say any of this to take away anything from any of the early astronauts – all of them were incredible people who dedicated and risked their lives to be the first to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But it’s important to recognise the criteria the early astronauts were selected on is radically different from what future Mars mission astronauts/colonists will be selected on. From the first Russian space stations, to the US shuttle program, through to the astronauts selected for 6 and 12 month missions to the International Space Station, we’ve seen significant changes in the way selectors assess potential astronauts, and by far the biggest changes have been how candidates are psychologically screened and prepared.

The critical difference between the first people in space and now? You’re still hurtling through the darkness in a hazardous tin can; except now it’s a fraction larger, you’re going for a lot longer AND you’re going with other people… so just because you’re a really great pilot doesn’t mean you can get away with being a jerk anymore!

Sorry Steve – you’re staying home

There is still a requirement to be fit and healthy – I needed to pass the equivalent of a commercial pilot’s medical exam for example. But because we’re spending longer in space and not jamming people into tiny cockpits for the entire trip, being short and light isn’t such a necessity anymore (it still helps though). You also obviously still need to be smart enough to process all you’ll need to learn, which is why Mars One tested our technical knowledge during the interview phase. But given Mars One is planning on sending people to Mars for the rest of their lives, finding people who have a clear sense of purpose and get along with others under isolation and stress is way more important than finding people who are really, really good (and short) pilots.

Basically we need to find people who at the bare minimum can live together without someone turning into Jack Torrance after a few months.

Wendy! I’m home to the hab!

Given Mars One isn’t planning to launch a crew until 2031, they also have 12-13 years to train candidates – more than enough time to learn anything and everything they’ll need provided they have the right motivation and a proven capacity to learn.

So with a greater focus on 1) Why someone wants to live to Mars, 2) How they get along with others & respond to stressful situations while isolated, and 3) their ability to learn new things quickly; Mars One’s selectors identified five key characteristics they sought in an astronaut candidate: Resiliency, Adaptability, Curiosity, Ability to trust, and Creativity/Resourcefulness. The short answer? Mars One is essentially looking to send 4 MacGyvers to Mars who are also great housemates.

No, not the “new” series. I mean the one that was actually good.

I’ve always been a fan of the MacGyver approach: he knows what he’s trying to achieve, he knows what resources he has available, he knows how much time he has, and he doesn’t ask permission to use something in a unique or different way to solve a problem. In short, he survives because he’s a “do-er”. Even so, MacGyver was a bit of solo act: saving the day through knowledge, lateral thinking and cool under pressure… but usually on his own, and everything usually cut to fit a 48 minute episode. To find a much closer parallel to the psychological endurance required by the Mars One crew, we really need to look back more than 100 years to a group of explorers trying to cross the southern pole of this planet.

The 28 crew members of the “Endurance”

The story of Ernest Shackleton’s “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” (commonly referred to as the “Endurance Expedition”) is far better told by others elsewhere – “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing is brilliant, but even the Wikipedia entry is a great way to get an idea of what it was like: 28 men surviving back-to-back winters on the Antarctic ice after their ship was crushed in pack ice, before attempting one of the most daring rescue missions in history by paddling 1300km in open boats across the Southern Atlantic then hiking for 3 days across the unexplored interior of South Georgia to reach help.

Many look to Shackleton as one of the greatest leaders of all time, and rightly so. I’m currently rereading “Shackleton’s Way” by Margot Morrell, which focuses on the incredible leadership lessons that can be taken from Shackleton and the Endurance expedition. The entire book has countless pearls of wisdom that can be easily applied to the planning and execution of a human Mars mission, but arguably the most important is how Shackleton selected and prepared his crew. And even if you haven’t heard of Ernest Shackleton before, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of this though: 

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton 4 Burlington st.”

There’s been a persistent myth that Shackleton took out this advert to recruit for the Endurance expedition, but unfortunately it’s almost certainly #FakeNews. The reality is Shackleton didn’t need to put out an advert: he received more than 5,000 applications when the expedition was announced, which is surprisingly similar to the 4,227 people who submitted completed applications to Mars One (Note: 202,586 people registered & confirmed their online applications, but the process to actually complete the application was… thorough).

Shackleton had the applications sorted into 3 boxes: “Mad”, “Hopeless”, and “Possible”. You could argue everyone applying was “Mad”, but Shackleton was looking for people who knew what they were getting themselves in for, had the experience he needed, and most importantly shared his vision and enthusiasm for exploration. After discarding the “Mad” and “Hopeless” boxes, the “Possible” applicants were then put through some pretty unconventional interviews, like asking the expedition physicist if he could sing. Shackleton wasn’t looking for the “best of the best” – he was looking for people who were qualified for the work and could live together peacefully for long periods without any outside communication. In the wise words of the man himself “Science or seamanship weigh little against the kind of chaps they were”. As Mars One selectors Dr Norbert Kraft and Dr Raye Kass point out in their Huffington Post article on Mars One crew selection, Shackleton chose people who were optimistic and could keep morale up like musicians and storytellers.

Meterologist Leonard Hussey, and his banjo that Shackleton considered “vital mental medicine”

Above all Shackleton picked people who did their job really well, but weren’t prone to being miserable or obnoxious when things got tough. People who great at what they did, but focused on building a sense of camaraderie among the group and were always quick with a laugh especially when things have gone wrong. Rather fittingly, Ernest Shackleton went to Antarctica with people very much like Mark Watney…

As we head into the next selection phase of Mars One narrows the group down to the 18 to 36 who will start training, and as that training continues towards a launch date, more and more questions will be asked about the psychological challenges the crew will face, and ultimately what makes the ideal crew for a one-way mission to Mars. My suspicion is they will be the same kind of people who were aboard the Endurance in 1914 as it approached the pack ice: people who love what they do and working with the people alongside them, who know deep down why what they’re doing is important to them, and who love laughing at every ridiculous aspect of the bizarre adventure they signed up for together.


Personal – Dear Josh in 2020

Dear Josh in 2020,
Firstly congratulations if you’re still around to read this – given all the stupid shit you’ve done through the years it’s a genuine surprise you’re still here to write this in 2016 at all, let alone read it in 2020. That’s not to say you’ve stopped doing stupid shit, because in case you’ve forgotten, you still do. A lot. But atleast over the last 4 years since you first found out about Mars One you’ve been a hell of a lot more focused on why you take ridiculous risks than you ever were. There’s a reason to take risks now… even if that reason is so I can live on a cold and unforgiving planet 56 million kilometers away without hope of return. I also spend a lot less time screaming at audiences while wearing a koala suit & playing ukulele now too, which I’m sure most people will agree is a good thing.

A very good thing

The reason I’m writing to you though is because once again it’s a) the end of an incredibly eventful year (but every year in your life is ludicrously eventful, so whatever, no biggie) and b) the end of another journal. Now traditionally I’ll go back over each diary/journal as I finish it and think “Oh wow, that’s right – I forgot that happened?” which then quickly devolves into “Hey, ‘member when dat happened? ‘member Staaar Waaaars?” and I come out dumber for the experience.

This time around though I’ve reached the end of my journal and realised some pretty huge things have happened over the last 4 years, so I decided to look a little further back than usual and review all my journals since 2012 to put it everything into context. And while I have a little bit of time to reflect before the chaos of 2017 starts, I also wanted to write a letter to you – decrepit & gross 35-year-old Josh – how much everything has gotten better, about how awesome things are right now, and how I’m sure things are going to keep getting better regardless of Cheeto-Hitler now having the keys to the nuclear launch codes.

How about no? You elected it, you keep it.

You see gross 35-year-old Josh, the ‘member berries only work if you just try to remember without any evidence. If you actually go back and review what things were like “back in the good old days” you tend not to look at them quite so fondly. Everyone freaked out about Paul Feig remaking Ghostbusters this year with an all-female cast. Boo haa, women aren’t funny, cry cry Paul Feig is ruining our childhoods and whatnot. When I watched the reboot I definitely enjoyed it, but because I didn’t laugh hysterically like I did at the original I wondered if I’d become one of those assholes that didn’t think women were funny. I mean obviously the original all-male cast were heaps funnier… right? AMIRIGHT? 

What has Kate McKinnon ever done that’s funny? You know, besides the Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Family Guy…

Then I actually re-watched the original Ghostbusters. And you know what? The 2016 version is better. There, I said it: the new Ghostbusters is funnier than the 1984 original. The confusion is just because I’m not growing up with the 2016 version. The original is still an awesome movie, but most of my memories of it being so amazing are tied to the fact I was growing up with it. The 2016 reboot isn’t for me – it’s for a new generation of kids who want to get excited about ghosts ruining shit. The old Ghostbusters hasn’t changed, but watching both with a clear eye it’s obvious I have.

Why the hell am I talking about Ghostbuster reboots? Because reviewing the last 4 years of my journals there’s been some real surprises realising how I actually felt about things at the time, and realising how hideously skewed (or even completely wrong) my perception of them became over time. Perfect example: an ex-girlfriend you were utterly smitten with, you were convinced had brought a whole new light into your life so strong it made you question your commitment to Mars One, and how you convinced yourself you’d lost the ability to feel that strongly about someone when you ended it after it became clear she didn’t love you anymore.

You know who I’m talking about: the second one you wrote a comedy show about because it’s cheaper than therapy…

But here’s the thing: none of that was real AND YOU KNEW IT AT THE TIME! Sure you were utterly smitten, but reading back over the journal from then you knew right at the start she was only a signpost: someone reflecting how awesome your life is, cheering you on in the right direction, but also not coming with your on the journey. You weren’t experiencing a whole new light in your life because of her, you were experiencing it because you were doing what you’re supposed to be doing eg. GETTING YOUR ASS TO MARS

Here’s Buzz Aldrin & Dave Grohl to remind you in 2020

Reading the actual journal entries (rather than just trying to ‘member) you can see it wasn’t till months later that you started to lose sight of what was really lighting up your life (being an astronaut candidate for the first human mission to Mars) and mixed up what was important: her, or trying to make humanity a dual-planet species… and that is when the ‘member berries started to whisper their juicy but sour lies. 

You can also see from the journals that I’ve been glancing over the fact this wasn’t the first time I’ve fallen into a very similar trap: there’s notes on at least two previous relationships in these journals where you faced almost identical challenges. While they weren’t all the same intensity they do all mirror each other on some details significantly: I practically dated a clone of that ex 12 months earlier, right down to looks & personality. The only significant difference between the two was the earlier girl wanted to live in Perth to raise a family, so I knew immediately it wouldn’t work long-term because the best/worst part of going to Mars is telling everyone in Perth you won’t be home for Christmas. Ever.

But here’s the good bit: at least each time things went wrong you learnt some of what you needed to avoid doing the exact same thing again. You might only be improving by 1%, but that is still better than the 0% improvement that most people make by sticking with their boring, unchanging “safe” lives. You’ve probably made a bundle of similar mistakes getting to 2020, and you’ll read this letter and say “Oh younger, much more attractive and virile 31 year old Josh – you’ll learn the lessons you need to when you are ready”. And I’ll tell you to shut your old beardy ginger face.

Wait – do you still have the beard? You’ve had it since you left the RM in 2010, so I’ll be devastated if you’ve gone corporate and shaved it off. I was (and still am) toying with the idea of living out of my backpack on an epic 3,000+ kilometer walk across Siberia or South America or something, keeping a journal of my thoughts and experiences along the way, and I was going to draw inspiration from Sean Conway and let my beard grow into something woolly and epic…

Seriously, my spirit animal is a honey badger with this man’s beard

Did you do it? Did find time to go on an epic 3000+km walk and use it as an excuse to grow a ginger hedge on your face? DO PEOPLE CALL YOU GANDALF THE RED NOW? I really hope so.

But whatever you do, remember that even small progress is still progress. You’re definitely sharper and more focused now than you have been at any point in the past. Things in the past were NOT as great as they are now, because in the past you hadn’t learnt as much as you have now. And that’s why I’m jealous of you, gross 35 year old Josh. Sure there are dips here and there, and it can be easy to look back and think you were happier in the past. But when you actually look at what things were like or what you felt in the past, you can see with crystal clarity that over time things have kept getting better and better.

I’m certain a lot of that has to do with writing to publish AND maintaining a journal. Publishing for an audience means I can share my experiences with others so they can learn too, but if I were just writing for an online audience I wouldn’t have a record to reflect honestly on how I feel about events and people. Although to be fair I currently have little trouble being honest with people about what I think about them, as my emails to some of the staff at an educational institution I used to work for will show (if you’ve forgotten what I’m talking about, search your gmail with the keywords “startling incompetence” – you’ll find it).

Hopefully in 2020 you’re still just as honest, but I equally hope that you’ve sharpened the tools you need to avoid it getting under your skin when people don’t do what they say they will. You’re always getting better at it, but the journals make it clear that while you’ll give some folks the benefit of the doubt over and over and over again, sometimes things still happen that cause it all to pour out in one hilarious & horrifying email or outburst.

Without a journal – however poorly maintained – I wouldn’t be able to look back at different points and see how much of a dickhead I used to be… as I’m sure in 2020 you’ll be looking back thinking how much of dickhead I am right now. I can also see how much my writing has improved, and most importantly I can see the ideas that have persisted through the years and the personal values that are obviously most important to me. No matter what crazy things have happened over the last few years, there are ideas and questions you’ve kept asking throughout all of it:

  • What can I do to help make humanity a dual-planet species?
  • What would you say to aliens if you could?
  • How can I slow myself down without stopping when I’m pushing too hard?
  • How can I be more like MacGyver but without the mullet?
  • Why do you recognise and end an ill-fitting career before you’ll do the same with a relationship?
  • How can I combine the ideas of Star Trek, Star Wars, Rick & Morty, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and Futurama into comedy to communicate science to others?
  • How do I shift my comedy further away from the dark & Freudian, and toward being more surreal and Jungian?
  • How can I find a way to help a billion people?
  • How can I have more philosophical & spiritual experiences by farting in the shower?
  • How do I maintain an orbital perspective on Earth?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How can I make the universe a little better in the limited time I have?

I hope in 2020 you look back at the end of 2016 and think “Yeah I was still a complete clown back then, but at least I was finally figuring out which basic parts of being a clown are most important to me so I could focus on them”. I hope you’ve spent the 4 years getting to 2020 by ignoring the confetti, not being sucked in by pointless conflict, and by focusing on doing the basics that are most important to you really really well.

Best Regards,
Josh in 2016

P.S. You’re 35 now, so has that psychic gypsy in New Orleans finally delivered the ginger she said you’d meet and fall in love with between 32 and 35? Not sure how that’s supposed to work with you going to Mars, but that’s your problem bro.

News – January Newsletter

2016 Is Dead – All Hail 2017

Pretty safe to say 2016 was a tougher year than most, but that’s not to say it didn’t have it’s fair share of highlights. I might have been living out of a backpack for most of it, but that didn’t stop me from:

But it looks like 2016 was really just a warm up, with 2017 already shaping up to be even more exciting again.

And somewhere in among all this chaos I’ve managed to launch my new website at as well. If you’ve missed them, here’s everything I’ve posted publicly over the last month;

For those of you supporting me on Patreon you’ve had several weeks early access to all the public posts, as well as;

It’s been a great first month on Patreon, with people contributing high and low to read more of what’s going on behind the scenes. I’ve spent most of the last 3 weeks transcribing 5 years of my journals, and now that I’ve redacted some of the names I’m much more comfortable sharing them. So to celebrate I’ve decided to remove  the $50/month patron level altogether, making the journals available at the $25/month level!

The $25/month Patron level is ram packed with goodies. These patrons now get:
  • Early access to my “Becoming Martian” book drafts,
  • A personal acknowledgement in the final book,
  • A digital copy AND a signed paperback copy when it’s published,
  • AND all the private journal entries and other private content I share.

So for all the ups and downs of last year, I hope you’re ready for the incredible rollercoaster that 2017 is shaping up to be. Keep an eye on the website for regular posts, Patreon for the latest news, as well as Facebook & Twitter – I’m looking forward to sharing some incredible adventures with you all in 2017!

Best regards,