Space – Getting To Mars [Part 1: Overview]

For the last few years I’ve structured my school visits and public talks primarily around answering questions about the Mars One project, rather than lecturing. For an average 90 minute school visit for example I’ll usually only speak for the first 10-15 minutes – with plenty of images of Mars and no text on the slides – before spending the next 75-80 minutes answering every question under the Sun about life on Mars. School visits in particular are incredibly entertaining, mostly because kids have absolutely no shame and no chill – they will ask absolutely every obscene thing you could ever imagine, while literally bouncing up and down in their chair with excitement, and I have to try to honestly answer their question about how sex, death, shitting, and/or cannibalism will be different on Mars than it is on Earth while their teachers look on in horror.

“Mr Richards, what would you do if there was an ACCIDENTAL fire in your Mars house?” *giggles*

When people hear about Mars One though, their questions almost always focus on what it would be like a) leaving Earth behind, and b) living on Mars without any prospect of coming back. Besides “how long will it take to get there?” though, I don’t usually get a lot of questions about the journey to get there itself. Kids want to know how you shit in space, and they understand the idea of living in a special “house” on Mars… but drifting for months through the inky darkness of interplanetary space to get to your new home is a concept so far removed from their regular lives they don’t even know where to start with questions.

And if kids won’t ask questions about the trip to Mars, you can be damn sure that adults won’t… unless they’re a massive space geek, in which case it’s 50/50 if they’re asking a question because they’re really excited about what you’re doing, or if they’re trying to “correct” you to show off their own knowledge.

So with all of this in mind, I’ve decided to write a series on how we’ll actually get to Mars. I’ll inevitably follow it up with another series on how we’ll live on Mars once we get there, but there’s definitely a huge knowledge gap in comprehending just how difficult (but perfectly achievable) the journey itself is.

Orbital Mechanics & Interplanetary Transfers

Contrary to what most kids (and plenty of adults) might think, you can’t just point your rocket at Mars and hit “GO!” (as awesome as that would be). With Earth and Mars orbiting the Sun at different distances, inclinations and orbital velocities; going from one to the other involves a lot more swinging and looping than people expect, and orbital mechanics has a great way of messing with people’s heads.

The short story is it will take us roughly 7 months to get to Mars, but because of the alignment of Earth, Mars and the Sun we can only launch things to Mars every two years or so. I can already hear the angry space geeks mashing their keyboards at that sentence alone… but if you can hold off for a few weeks from sending me hate-mail filled with delta-V equations and screaming in all-caps about “BALLISTIC CAPTURE”, I’m going to delve deep into orbital mechanics. As always I’ll be writing equally for comedy AND science-communication, so don’t panic if you’re the type who doesn’t break out into an excited sweat at the sight of a Hohmann Transfer equation – I”l be aiming to help you understand why there’s no straight lines when you’re trying to get anywhere in space, but without you needing to become a full-blown pocket-protector-wearing nerd in the process.

Launch Vehicles & Propulsion

There’s no shortage of folks gushing about how you’ll need a “big rocket” to get to Mars (don’t talk to me about SLS, I’m only going to sigh at you) but there’s a lot more to rockets than just “burn lots of fuel really fast to make things go up”. Payload fairing size, solid vs liquid fuels, payload harmonics, staging, crew/cargo separation – it all gets pretty complex pretty quickly. I cringe any time someone sighs and tells me “Space Is Hard”, but using rockets to get places is definitely expensive, risky, and utterly unforgiving if something goes awry.

It’s also not just the “getting out of the atmosphere without being ripped apart” bit you need to worry about either – between ion engines, solar sails, Neumann Drives and nuclear propulsion (if anyone mentions “Solar Electric Propulsion” I will scream at you), there is a mountain of different ways to move between planets without an atmosphere to contend with that are a lot more efficient than just firing up a hypergolic rocket like the US used in the Apollo program to get to the Moon (DO NOT EVEN START WITH ME, MOON HOAX PEOPLE. I’M ALREADY PISSED OFF ABOUT SLS AND SOLAR ELECTRIC PROPULSION – I WILL DESTROY YOU).

Life Support & Psychology

If you’re putting people in an aluminium can and launching them for 7 months to live on a cold, desolate planet for the rest of their lives…. you kind of want them to survive the trip. While there’s still a lot of discussion about the design of Mars One’s transit habitat, we already know it will face unique challenges that nothing rated to carry humans in space has ever had to contend with. Operating somewhere between the space shuttle (which never spent more than 18 days in space) and the International Space Station (which has so far spent more than 18 years in space), the Mars One transit habitat will need to keep four astronauts fit and healthy during the trip to Mars, but once it reaches Mars orbit it also won’t ever need to be used again… so life support systems that are reliable for 7+ months, but also can’t be repaired with critical supplies from Earth.

There’s also that little factor of how do you keep the crew from going bonkers and opening the airlock – preferably by not taking a suicidal British botanist for starters. While I’ve already talked about how to use Ernest Shackleton’s approach to crew selection as a template when selecting a Mars crew, the psychology of space exploration is a particularly fascinating topic generally so get ready to be bombarded with discussions on Breakaway Syndrome, the 3/4 Factor, the Overview Effect, and Facebook use during Antarctic over-winter studies!


*sigh* I’m only doing this because there is a ridiculous amount of fear-mongering around it. Yes, we will be exposed to radiation and it will probably increase our risk of heart attack… which is fine, because we’re not coming back and I’d be having a heart attack ON MARS. Which is way more awesome than having a heart attack in an Earth-bound nursing home. NO – it will not make us stupidNO – it does not make a Mars mission impossible. Mars One has written up a great article on what the actual radiation risks are and how they can be mitigated, but I’ll be writing a far more in-depth article on why radiation is NOT the biggest hurdle to sending people to Mars.

Because realistically the biggest hurdle to getting people on Mars has always been…

Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL)

A fractionally elevated risk of cancer and/or heart-attack is nothing in-comparison to the risk of hitting the top of the Martian atmosphere at 9km/sec without bouncing off into deep space, using your spacecraft as a brakepad as it heats up to glow white-hot while ripping through the atmosphere, firing a rocket engine into the hypersonic winds to try and slow down, and then using those rockets and their highly limited fuel to land without becoming an impact crater.

The challenges of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) is why the heaviest thing anyone has successfully landed on Mars to date is Curiosity Rover at around 900kg. If NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars and bring them back, they need to be able to land a Mars Return Vehicle that will weigh roughly 30,000 to 40,000 kg. For comparison though Mars One’s Environmental Control and Life Support System is the single heaviest component that needs to reach the surface of Mars safely at 7,434 kg, while SpaceX is talking about being able to deliver 13,600 kg to Mars with Falcon Heavy.

Above all else not being able to land heavy stuff on the surface has been the biggest engineering hurdle faced in the race to Mars, but it looks like the folks at SpaceX are up for the challenge.

So there you have it! I’ve been looking forward to hooking into some serious space engineering and psychology posts to off-set the more personal posts I’ve been working on lately, and I’m really interested to seeing what I can feed from these new posts back into “Becoming Martian” as I continue to edit it.

Onward and upward!

News – February Newsletter


Unleash the inner honey badger!

It’s safe to say that the 10 months on the road in 2016 with my Cosmic Nomad tour took one hell of a toll, and since it ended the last few months in Perth have been pretty emotionally taxing too – not just processing and revisiting things, but also the challenge of living in a city I have a very checkered history with.

After being knocked back for a job in Melbourne I decided I needed to be anywhere but Perth for a few weeks. So I’ve just spent a week on an island off the coast of Bali (because my inner bogan needed to be exercised) and I’m currently in Kuala Lumpur for the weekend visiting an ex-girlfriend (because I’m an emotional anarchist).

Things are still pretty uncertain, but the time away has already been the right kind of challenging to get real clarity on who I am and how I’m going to keep attacking this year. And I really do mean “attack” because while we wait to hear more from Mars One I’ve already started hitting 2017 in the face like an angry honey badger.

The last few days in particular have been all about jumping in and seeing what happens rather than overthinking things and worrying I’m might not be good enough – applying for a mountain of jobs at Questacon (interviews start next week), chasing up producers for a potential TV show (oh yes), and editing my “Becoming Martian” ahead of it’s publication this year (first drafts available to Patrons later this month).

And somewhere in among all this chaos I’ve managed to keep things up to date on – here’s everything I’ve posted publicly over the last month;

  • “Personal – Dear Josh in 2020” – A lot of famous folks write open letters to their younger selves as a sentimental kind of “You’ll be okay” & “If only you knew then where you’d wind up”. Because I’m not massively lame this is an open-letter to my future self saying “You’re always getting better so don’t be a nostalgic wanker”.
  • “Space – Choosing a Crew for Mars” – Most folks think “The Right Stuff” is some steely-eyed high-flying aviator, but who wants to be locked inside a tin can for 7 months on the way to Mars with THAT? This looks at how we need folks more like Ernest Shackleton than the Mercury 7 on a Mars mission crew.
  • “Personal – Badgers, Bender & Ink” – Anyone who has seen my 2016 show “Cosmic Nomad” is painfully aware of my ludicurous cartoon tattoos, but you might be surprised to discover they’ve all got layers of meaning deeper than “I want a robot spaceman tattooed on my ass”. Here’s the story behind all of them.

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

The support from fans through Patreon has grown surprisingly quickly too, with several folks being absolute heroes and signing up for early access to my book drafts and journals! Patreon is a great platform and I’ve started to get a real feel for sharing content through it, so get ready for a mountain of exclusive content there this month!

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.

As promised 2017 is quickly turning into a rollercoaster, and I honestly don’t know what I’ll be writing in the March newsletter… but it’s safe to assume it’ll involve a lot more honey badger-like behavior as I start ripping up the challenges this year tries to throw at me 😀

Keep an eye on the website for regular posts, Patreon for the latest news, as well as Facebook & Twitter – can’t wait to see what chaos is unleashed in Februrary!

Stay awesome,


Personal – Badgers, Bender & Ink

A few weeks back a close friend of mine was shocked to discover I have multiple tattoos. In her defense she’s didn’t get to see Cosmic Nomad when I was touring it last year, so she’s never had to witness my awful pasty ginger ass from a performance stage like the rest of my fee-paying audiences in 2016 did. But I also realised many who haven’t seen that show are probably unaware of them too, and since they say a lot about how I see myself I thought I’d share what a space industry colleague described as “childish” and my mother describes as “looking like a criminal”.

Left Shoulder

This is actually two tattoos spaced 4 months apart, with the largest amount of work being a single epic 10 hour session done in early 2016 – the day before I flew out of Melbourne to start the global Cosmic Nomad tour. On the right there’s Carl Sagan with a lightsaber riding a velocirapter:

Now don’t get me wrong – this is an utterly ludicrous thing to have permanently scraped into the back of your left arm. But in many ways it also symbolises my past. The velocirapter is representative of my nature with the military: ruthless, vicious, and bordering on predatory. Always trying to be smarter, faster and more vicious than those around me to “protect” myself from them. At the same time Carl Sagan is there because I looked to science as a way of making sense of the world and loved the sense of awe that it brought… but I was still very scared of the world and armed Carl with a red lightsaber.

On the far more positive side however, there’s Rick Sanchez riding a honey badger:

Like Carl Sagan and the velocirapter, this is an entirely ridiculous thing to have covering half your upper arm… but this is definitely where I’m at these days. If you’re unfamiliar with Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty”, then you should watch this:

If you are familiar with Rick Sanchez and didn’t watch the video above because you don’t like Ricky and Morty, then we really can’t be friends anymore. Rick Sanchez is Carl Sagan, except he’s now quit trying to explain the universe to people and now just does the things that need to be done. If you look hard enough he’s ultimately always acting in the highest and best interests of the universe, but he doesn’t even pretend to care if you can keep up or if your personal moral compass agrees.

Now I’m not as jaded as Rick, but I’ve definitely stopped accommodating other people’s opinions the way I used to. These days I’m always honest with people, I know I’m good at doing things that are helping make the world a better place, and I’m always getting better at doing those things… so I really don’t give a shit if you agree with what I’m doing with my life, I’m doing it anyway.

Now you might naturally assume that Rick is riding a honey badger for exactly the same reason, and that I’ve probably watched “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” by Randall way too many times… and you’d be partly correct on both counts. Honey badgers are generally pretty badass, but for me the honey badger is really about punching well above your weight, being able to take an absolute battering while keeping a stupid grin on your face, and being able to work things out so you can create absolute chaos.

Case in point: Stoffel the Honey Badger

I’d like to point out that the video above starts with the narrator saying “After Stoffel’s severe mauling by the lions…” because Stoffel decided to start a fight with a bunch of lions and survived. Once he recovered he started causing problems and was locked up… so he figured out how to escape and cause chaos. When he was locked up somewhere more secure, he figured out how to escape and then caused chaos. When he got mauled by lions, he recovered and then went back for more. When everyone was convinced he couldn’t possibly escape his enclosure, he did.

You might stop a honey badger… but not for long, and they’re going to be pissed when they get moving again.

Together Carl Sagan on a velocirapter and Rick Sanchez on a honey badger form a kind of Coat-Of-Arms, all centered around my very first tattoo: a seven-leaf clover framed by a laurel wreath.

There’s a surprising number of layers and quite a story to getting my first tattoo at all. For a few months in 2006 I was reading Sam De Brito’s blog “All Men Are Liars” fairly regularly, and while my interest in his blog was only minimal and I never actually read his book, the title “No Tattoos Before You’re Thirty” always resonated with me. Tattoos were incredibly commonplace among the Royal Marines, and one of my 101 Things To Do Before You Die entries was to get a tattoo… but even at 24 I knew it wouldn’t happen before I was 30. I had in my head that if I were going to get something done, it needed to be something that meant a lot to me, and it would have been planned a long way ahead.

I also wasn’t sure I’d ever make it to 30 – without going into detail, after everything that has happened through the years I’m well aware of how lucky I am to still be here. I’m also well aware that the closest calls I’ve ever had and the hardest I’ve ever been pushed was always with the Royal Marines, and I still very much believe in their ethos: Courage, Determination, Unselfishness, and Cheerfulness in the face of adversity. The RM brought out both the best and the worst in me, but above all it taught me the military isn’t where I was supposed to be. I dropped out of training having learnt that I’m supposed to help people and make them laugh, and a few months later after a lot of soul-searching and an ample dose of Futurama I figured out I’m supposed to help our species become a dual planet one.

I’d known for years what I would get done if I made it to 30, so it was easy when I walked into a tattoo parlour in Carlton a few days after my birthday. To recognise what I’ve done and what I know I’m capable of, I had a laurel wreath done in the same place on my left arm that a Royal Marine might wear the Kings Badge. But to also recognise both how lucky I’ve been & how I’ve moved on from the military, instead of the RM’s “GR” in the middle of that wreath I replaced it the 7-leaf clover from Futurama’s “Luck of the Fryrish” episode.

If you haven’t seen the episode (or even if you have) I highly recommend looking it up, but the short story is *spoilers* Fry’s nephew ends up with the lucky 7-leaf clover and becomes the first man on Mars. *end spoilers*

Right Ass Cheek

And because I’m a ridiculous human being, at the same time I was getting my first tattoo with the wreath & clover, I also decided to get Bender smoking a cigar on my right ass cheek too

If you’re not a fan of Futurama, then just like Rick and Morty we pretty much can’t be friends anymore. It’s far and away my most ridiculous tattoo (which is saying a lot), but in many ways this one is the most important. I knew at the time I needed to do it, but wasn’t really sure why it was so important and laughed that it was simply because it was a ridiculous thing to do and because I have a lot in common with Fry…

I had no idea how things would turn out, how important this tattoo would become, or how it would make so much more sense nearly a year after it was done. But in one of those startling twists of fate, in a single beautiful moment I realised I’m not Fry.

I’m Lars – Fry’s shaven headed, bearded, and ultimately doomed clone from an alternate timeline. Fry doesn’t have the tattoo of Bender on his ass – Lars does. If you’ve seen it, you don’t need me to explain the rest. If you haven’t then I won’t ruin it by explaining – either way, you should go and watch it. And when you get back we’ll listen to 30 Century Man together, laugh and smile with tears in our eyes.

It’s funny how so much your perspective on everything can change, but I’m glad that I have these emotional turning points physically on me. I’ve been told that tattoos are addictive and I can certainly see why, so I’m glad I’ve carefully chosen things that carry enormous meaning for me & my relationship to them evolves as times goes on… even if they might seem ridiculous to others at first glance.

I suspect I’ll be making a final visit to Killer Bees Tattoos in Melbourne, chatting to the incredible Dan Danckert – who’s done all of these tattoos and I who can’t recommend highly enough – about one last thing. But rather than tell you all what I’m thinking, I’ll save the surprise for when it’s done. *maniacal ginger unicorn laugh*