Space – Getting To Mars Part 3: Propulsion

We kicked off my series on “Getting to Mars” last time with a look at Orbital Mechanics – showing that the physics of getting from one planet to another can be mostly explained with a stapler, a pen, and Kristen Wiig looking unimpressed. This time we’re looking at the propulsion systems that we’ll use to get to Mars.

Of course because every armchair expert has their own pet propulsion project they think is critical to the future of space exploration, this is probably the article I’ll have to delete the most hate-mail for. That’s right – I don’t even read your unsolicited and poorly-spelled bullshit before deleting it, but thank you for reading all of mine! And if you haven’t already figured it out this is also the article you’re probably going to get me at my snarkiest, because there are three phrases I hear on a fairly regular basis that genuinely get under my skin and strangely all three are connected in some way to spacecraft propulsion…

#1 “Space is hard” – The lame catch-cry of everyone that’s just watched a spacecraft disintegrate in a “rapid unscheduled disassembly“. Don’t whinge that space is “hard” – find the cause of the problem and learn from it. Space isn’t hard, it’s just unforgiving of screw-ups. Screw-ups like when someone puts in a gyroscope upside down on a US$1.3 billion rocket launch, or when someone else loses a Mars probe because it was built by the world’s biggest aerospace contractors in the only country besides Liberia & Myanmar still fighting the Metric system.

#2 “It’s not rocket science” – The sarcastic accusation that something you’re struggling with isn’t really that difficult. You know, instead of helping you, someone will suggest you’re an idiot. Here’s something for all of you unhelpful jerks: Rocket science is not difficult. Rocket science can be explained with literally ONE equation (aptly called the “Rocket Equation”) that’s not even remotely complex. Ready for it?
Where \Delta v\ is the change in the spacecraft’s velocity, v_{\text{e}} is how fast things are being shoved out the back of your spacecraft (eg. the rocket exhaust), and you multiply that by the natural logarithm (\ln ) of your spacecraft’s initial mass (m_{0}) over it’s final mass (m_{f}). You can also express the same equation in terms of specific impulse, but if it’s all feeling too complex just remember you go faster if you throw bits of your spaceship out the back really fast to make it lighter.

Rocket science is not difficult, however rocket engineering is ludicrously complex and exceptionally challenging*. So next time you decide to be an obnoxious and holier-than-thou wanker to someone trying to do something they’re struggling with, how about at least getting the terminology right?

*For why I still refuse to say rocket engineering is “hard”, see point 1 above

#3 “We need to develop better solar electric propulsion to get to Mars” – I’ll get to why you’re what’s wrong with the space industry a little later, but for now lets just say you’re a piece of shit and I can prove it mathematically.

Spacecraft propulsion can be broken down into two big categories: Thermodynamic (using heat to move gas) and Electrodynamic (using electricity/magnetism to move gas).

Thermodynamic

This category is mostly the kind of spacecraft propulsion everyone is familiar with: rockets. Absolutely no one is doubting that rockets look super cool. They’re also dangerous, wasteful, noisy, and prone to going boom because of the most tiny and obscure things… like super-chilled liquid oxygen turning solid on your carbon-fiber wrapped helium tanks.

Rockets are also ridiculously expensive and absurdly inefficient at getting things to space. The Saturn V that launched men to the Moon* weighed nearly 3 million kilos on launch, but only 5,560kg of that was left by the time the Command Module splashed down in the ocean. To put it in context, 0.185% of the original rocket’s mass came back to Earth and the other 2,964,440kg was either burnt as fuel, dumped in the ocean/space, or left on the Moon. Considering each Saturn V launch cost about US$1.16 billion in 2016 figures, that’s a whole lot of specialised and expensive stuff to be just throwing away.
* Don’t even start with me Moon Hoaxers – I will destroy you

I’d talk about how NASA’s “Space Launch System” is supposed to (eventually) be more powerful than Saturn V… buuuuuuuut since SLS & the Orion capsule are basically the worst parts of the Bush-era Constellation program that have already cost US$18 billion and are now projected to reach US$35 billion in 2025, at this point it really looks like it’s just a pork-barreling jobs program for a bundle of US Senators through the old conservative aerospace manufacturers. A jobs program which is also takes funding away from real exploration opportunities (like the underfunded Commercial Crew Program) to build a rocket that’s going anywhere. #NotEvenSorry

I currently have a bet with a fellow space geek about SLS: I’m convinced it will be cancelled before it ever flies, whereas she thinks it’ll fly once before it’s cancelled. The loser has to buy the other a ticket to Mars aboard this…

Did you see that gigantic rocket flying itself back to the launch pad to refuel and launch again? That’s SpaceX’s “Interplantary Transport System”, and once it’s up and running in the 2020’s there will be several of these taking 100 to 200 people to Mars every few years for about US$200,000 each – return trip included. They can afford to talk about sending people to Mars and back for less than the median cost of a house in the US (or 1/4 of a house in Sydney) because they’re not dumping most of their rockets into the ocean every time they launch – they’re landing them, refueling them, and launching them again. Building better rockets and not throwing most of them away after a launch means the cost of getting stuff to orbit has decreased dramatically in recent years.

We’ve never used rockets for their efficiency though – we use them because they produce a huge amount of thrust. If you have to get something from the ground into Low-Earth Orbit, it needs to push through the air with enough raw power and velocity to break free of the atmosphere and start falling around the Earth with enough velocity not to hit it again. Right now the only thing we’ve got that can push hard and fast enough to reach orbit is rockets, and no matter whatever weird propulsion system other folks might be dreaming about this is also the only way we’re going to get to Mars in the next 15-20 years*.

*Bring it on Solar Electric Propulsion people – I’ve got your number at the end of this article.

That’s not to say all rockets are the same though – we’ve got all sorts of different ways of making things go boom to get somewhere fast:

Solid Rockets – Basically really big and complex versions of the little gunpowder rocket engines you can buy at a hobby store. They’re cheap, powerful, and easy to make – perfect for launching things like cargo and probes into space.

It’s probably not a great idea to use solid rocket boosters on anything carrying people though – once you light a solid rocket you can’t stop it burning if something goes wrong… like when one on the space shuttle burned through an o-ring and into a 760,000kg tank fuel of rocket fuel, which then exploded and killed seven astronauts. But NASA is planning to use solid rocket boosters again with the crewed SLS (test fire pictured above). So, you know… YOLO.

Liquid Rockets – Pumping flammable liquids into a chamber and having them explode in a specific direction. While the Chinese were the first to get serious about solid rockets back in the 1200’s, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a guy called Robert Goddard started to set fire to liquids to push rockets around. Unfortunately the US’s scientific community and the New York Times just made fun of him for suggesting rockets could work in space.

Correction the New York Times published 3 days before Apollo 11 launched (on liquid rockets) to the Moon… and 24 years after Goddard had died.

Fortunately some people payed attention to Goddard’s research into liquid rockets. Unfortunately those people were also the Nazis, who then used that research to bomb Europe with these:

Liquid rocket engines are way more complex than solid rocket engines essentially because the fuel is sloshing around and needs to be pressurised through tanks & fuel lines for them to keep flying. Going back to my earlier “rocket science is easy, but rocket engineering is hard” – the national security restrictions imposed by each country on who can work on their rocket technology often has little to do with the rocket itself, and is almost entirely about protecting the technology behind the turbopumps that push the fuel and oxidiser at high speed & pressure into the engine bell.

Liquid rockets generally get broken down into two further categories depending on their fuel too. Bipropellants are what you see in a usual rocket launch where an oxidiser (usually liquid oxygen) and a fuel (kerosene, liquid hydrogen, methane, ect) burn to produce thrust. Monopropellant is a single liquid that ignites when it touches a catalyst, and is often used once you’re in space to turn your spacecraft around or give it a gentle push. It’s also usually made of hideously toxic, carcinogenic and explosive liquids like Hydrazine, that apparently smells like fruity-ammonia if you live long enough to tell someone.

Hybrid Rockets – A surreal mix of a solid and liquid rocket. The most obvious and well-known example of a hybrid rocket powers this:

Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two

Hybrid engines have a liquid/gas oxidiser that runs through channels in the solid fuel to burn it. They avoid the complexity of liquid rocket engines, and unlike a solid rocket you can stop them once they’re lit by cutting off the oxidiser supply. The downsides are they’re not as efficient as solid or liquid rockets, and most of them are filthy polluters. The fuel going into hybrid engine in Spaceship Two has been changed a lot, but it’s usually nitrous oxide burning rubber. So pumping soot directly into the upper atmosphere isn’t exactly fantastic for things like Global Warming…

Nuclear Propulsion – Launching tonnes of hot, radioactive material into space because it’s really good at getting you places fast… provided it doesn’t explode on the way.

Now I’m only including this because it is a form of thermodynamic propulsion, people have talked about for more than 60 years, folks like NASA & the Soviets have designed entire working systems around it… and even at it’s absolute safest it’s still fairly insane.

Nuclear rockets are outrageously powerful – even the most basic designs are twice as powerful as what’s possible with a chemical rocket. There are dozens of different (theoretical) varieties, however only two have ever been developed properly: NASA’s NERVA and the Soviet Union’s RD-0410. NASA actually had the closed-cycle NERVA XE flight ready and deemed suitable for a Mars mission in 1969, right before NASA’s funding was cut because it was clear the US was going to win the race to the Moon. Both the NASA and Soviet systems still involved using a flying nuclear reactor to super-heat hydrogen in space, however they were designed to be comparatively safe “closed cycle” systems.

I say comparatively, because you have to compare it to the other crazy shit other people were suggesting in the 1960’s. Fun things like “open cycles” designs that used weapons-grade radioactive material and deliberately spewed out clouds of radioactive exhaust.

See the bit saying “Uranium 235 T~55,000 K” leading to an open nozzle? Because fuck everyone else on the planet, right?

Then there’s the folks who designed Project Orion, who clearly felt the only thing better than using a nuclear reactor in space would be to use actual nuclear weapons. Project Orion was about literally firing a nuclear weapon behind your spaceship to propel it in the other direction: for anyone who’s ever played Quake or Team Fortress 2 this is basically a rocket-jump but with a nuke.

We’re not talking about just one nuke either: the idea was to have one going off every second, and some of the interstellar designs called for a spacecraft 20km long that carried 300,000,000 1-Megaton nuclear weapons, or “pulse units” as they were so eloquently renamed. Strangely enough Project Orion pretty much ended when most of the world signed the “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water” (aka the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) in 1963.

The fever dreams of Dr Strangelove

Chances are we’ll need some sort of nuclear propulsion in the future to take humans beyond Mars though. Jupiter barely gets 4% of the sunlight the Earth does, so the diminishing light from the Sun makes solar power a lot less viable. It’d also be a great way to reduce the nuclear stockpiles we have, and there’s even some semi-reasonable arguments for taking small nuclear power plants to provide electricity to a colony on Mars – the big issues are obviously what do you do with the waste and what if something breaks?

Nuclear propulsion isn’t completely insane… but do we need to take the risk, when we can get to Mars just fine using conventional chemical rockets? No. 

Do you know what else we don’t need to get to Mars? Solar Bullshit Electric Fucking Propulsion.

Electrodynamic

Maybe you’ve heard on the news about some crazy space propulsion system that uses lasers, ions, or something else that sounds really complex and weird. Chances are it’s either a solar sail (which are slow but cool in their own “Star-Surfing with Sagan” kind of way) or you’ve heard about some variant of an ion drive (which are also slow but cool in their own “Star Trekking with William Shatner” kind of way too).

Ion drives are not some far flung science-fiction fantasy though: Harold Kaufmann built the first ion thruster in 1959, the Russians launched their own variant (known as a Hall Effect Thruster) on a satellite in 1971, and almost all modern communication satellites use some form of ion drive for “station-keeping” – correcting for variations in Earth’s gravity to maintain a highly precise “geo-stationary” orbit.

Essentially ion drives use electric fields to accelerate a gas (usually Xenon) out an exhaust at incredibly high velocities to produce a tiny thrust. The high exit velocity (aka “Specific Impulse”) means ion drives are insanely efficient and capable of reaching much higher maximum velocities than any rocket ever could, and there’s been some really exciting improvements… but because ion drives only throw out only a tiny bit of gas (eg. roughly the same amount of force you feel blowing on the back of your hand) they’re also incredibly slow to accelerate up to those high velocities.

How slow? NASA’s Dawn mission has three Xenon ion thrusters capable of 90mN of thrust (about the same force as the weight of a postage stamp) that can accelerate the probe from 0 to 100km/hr over four days.

Ion drives absolutely have their place, but no matter what bullshit spin some of the old aerospace players might try to pull that place is not getting people to Mars. Ion drives are improving, but unless VASIMR unexpectedly gets a demo flight and proves it actually works electrodynamic propulsion simply won’t be powerful enough to shorten the trip to Mars for humans any time in the next few decades. Especially if you’re only using solar power.

Improved ion drives that run on solar power will be really useful however for… getting communication satellites from Low-Earth Orbit into a Geo-stationary orbit.

Here’s a fun fact: the global satellite communication industry generates over US$200 billion in revenue each year, and makes up nearly 2/3’s of the entire space industry. Reaching Low-Earth Orbit (160km to 2000km altitude) with a rocket is relatively simple, however getting to Geo-stationary orbit (~36,000km and where almost all large communication satellites need to be placed) is much harder, requires far greater velocities, and usually needs an additional stage on the rocket. This extra velocity and additional staging brings greater risks of things going wrong, so naturally launching something to such a high orbit is also a lot more expensive.

So if telecommunication companies can launch new satellites to a much cheaper Low-Earth Orbit and then use solar powered ion drives (aka “Solar Electric Propulsion” aka “The bane of my existence”) to slowly shift new satellites up to geo-synchronous orbit over several months, they’ll save literally billions in launch costs alone.

Are you bored by this yet?  

No shit – the satellite communication industry is boring, but it’s also really big money. Do you know what is not boring, but also means risking lives for something that won’t make anywhere near as much money? SENDING PEOPLE TO MARS.

Which is why there’s a huge amount of money and research going into solar electric propulsion at the moment, and why I roll my eyes obnoxiously at everyone who tells me it’ll “help with NASA’s #JourneyToMars”. Because they either don’t understand how weak solar electric propulsion currently is, or they’re trying to bullshit me and others into believing a technology being developed to reduce the cost of deploying communication satellites around Earth will somehow get me to Mars.

I’m happy to be proven wrong on all of this, and I’m certain in the far future we’ll use ion drives to zip between Earth and Mars. I’m even sure some of them will even use solar power. They’ve been trying since 1971, but maybe Ad Astra will finally get somewhere with VASIMR afterall. Maybe the EM Drive will be completely validated and change everything. But don’t tell me we to need to pour billions more into solar electric propulsion research to get to Mars – chemical rockets have been getting things there just fine for decades.

In the meantime, Mars One was founded with the express purpose of permanently colonising Mars, and SpaceX was founded with the express purpose of establishing a sustained human presence on Mars too. Do you see either of them talking about needing further research into solar electric propulsion?
No? Just using conventional liquid rockets you say?

Funny that…

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Personal – Mars One Preparation List

 

Recently I’ve had a lot of folks asking if I’m “doing any training to prepare” ahead of Mars One’s next selection phase, and I tell them that every single thing I’ve done since I heard about Mars One in early September 2012 has been about preparing for life on Mars. What they really mean though is “Are you trying to get as physically fit as possible?”. The truth is I’m not even remotely as fit as I was in my mid-20’s training with the Royal Marine Commandos, and right now I don’t want to be.

I’ll say this as gently as I can: the commandos need physically fit and tough folks to carry heavy things and follow orders – there wasn’t a huge demand for higher level reasoning, problem solving, or creativity. So while I was preparing in Australia my writing and comedy both quickly tapered off, and once I started training in the UK they disappeared entirely. It’s not a bad thing – it’s just what often happens when you’re doing something incredibly physically & emotionally demanding that doesn’t require the same from you mentally or creatively.

Finding some balance didn’t even start till more than a year after I’d left the military. In late 2011, just after I’d written my first comedy show, I stumbled across James Altucher’s blog and read an article with the very click-bait-ey title “How to be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps”. While I’ve continued to read and share some of his other articles in the years since, what has always stuck with me most is the 4-part Daily Practice that James describes: doing something each day that’s Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.

No matter what is going on in my life, provided I work on each of these 4 areas a little each day things have always gotten better. So with that in mind I’ve broken my preparation for Mars One selection down the same way!

Physical

When I was preparing for the Commandos using a 12 Week Program designed to prepare people for the US Navy SEALs, I was spending about an hour in the pool and another 2 hours in the gym/running 6 days a week – I’ve never been as fit in my life. But while I’m a big believer in the “Healthy Body, Healthy Mind” creedo, right now I really don’t need to be running 50+km a week, swimming 20+km a week, or punching out hundreds of push-ups & chin-ups a day like I used to. It’s not just physically exhausting, it’s also creatively exhausting and time consuming.

Now I do one hour on the rowing and weight machines each afternoon, and that’s mainly for clearing the mental cobwebs after a morning of writing so I can get the creative juices flowing again for new article ideas. When Mars One’s selection is 3-4 months away I’ll step things up, putting Stew Smith’s “12 Weeks To BUD/S” program to good use again so I can exceed the following physical goals before selection starts:

  • Run 2.4km in <10minsAchieved, aiming <9:30, Personal Best 8:48
  • Run 5km in <25minsAchieved, aiming <22:30, Personal Best 21:03
  • 100 Situps in <2mins: Currently ~80, aiming 120+, Personal Best 125
  • 15 Pullups in <2mins: Currently ~13, aiming 20+, Personal Best 17
  • 25m Underwater in <30secAchieved, aiming 50m in <50sec, Personal Best 75m in <55sec
  • 500m sidestroke in <10mins: Uncertain – not recently tested, aiming for <9:30, Personal Best 8:15

Being fit is great, but for now I’m better served by focusing more on eating and drinking healthier than I have been.

One of the downsides of having been intensely active in the past was seeing food purely as fuel, eating absolutely whatever I wanted, and the huge temptation to over-eat rich foods when I’m not currently burning as much. Over the last few years I’ve been been experimenting with different eating habits, and now with the help of fellow Mars One candidate & body-hacker Dianne McGrath I’m looking seriously at trialing a ketogenic diet. I’ve always tended to avoid bread and sugar where I could anyway, this just means being much more disciplined about it. I’m still enjoying plenty of meats and eggs too before we have to go mostly vegan on Mars – I love my family, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I think I’ll miss bacon more. 

Changing the type of coffee I drink has been one of the most interesting shifts though. I grew up convinced everyone drank terrible instant coffee with milk and two sugars: we even called it “Standard NATO” in the Army. With the introduction of a coffee machine at my parents a few years back, an ill-advised soy latte experiment in 2015 when I moved to Melbourne, and developing a taste for Long Black/Americano in Israel last year (mostly because we couldn’t get milk) – it’s safe to say my “writer’s fuel” will become permanently keto-friendly in the next few weeks.

Mental

In late 2013 I went to the Netherlands for a Mars One conference, staying for 5 weeks with the girlfriend I’d met in September 2012 literally days before I first discovered Mars One. It’s safe to say I put that frankly amazing woman through emotional hell, for the simple fact I’d promised to leave her for a cold and unloving planet over 56 million kilometers away within weeks of meeting her… and I made it even worse during the 2013 trip by unexpectedly disappearing every hour or so . When she would eventually find me, I’d be squirreled away in some corner reading on my tablet: completely lost to the world with a paper about Martian crustal magnetism or a textbook on space engineering design.

Folks ask me now how I’m so comfortable answering technical questions in interviews – much of that is practice doing interviews, but most don’t realise the shear amount of reading I’ve done over the last 4 years. That ex-girlfriend endured the absolute worst of it because at the time I felt so out of my depth whenever I was asked a question about something I had publicly dedicated my life to. I barely stopping reading for that first year, and I still spend a huge amount of time every day pouring through books and papers to stay up to date.

These days my efforts are a lot more focused though. While there’s new research being released all the time related to both Mars and human spaceflight, that obsessive amount of reading in the first year has now made it fairly easy to glean the important details from papers quickly. It’s also made it easy to recognise and avoid a lot of the sensational nonsense you hear that often sounds like a huge breakthrough in human spaceflight, but usually isn’t even remotely relevant to colonising Mars the way it might be reported.

Mars One have provided the remaining 100 candidates with an official study list that includes the Paragon ECLSS design study; 3 parts of the “Food For Mars” series, and extracts from the Mars One book on technology, space medicine, politics, and improvisation. Obviously studying the Astronaut Requirements, as well as Dr Kraft’s articles on Screening from 100 to 24 and his Astronaut Selection Process Q&A are critical too.

I’ve also put together my own list of books, papers and articles to read, and there’s several online courses I’ve been checking in with too. What I’m finding most useful however is taking all that I’ve learnt over the last few years and distilling the most interesting and relevant parts into my book. “Becoming Martian” is all about the human side of colonising Mars – not the technology, but how we will be changed by the journey to and settlement of Mars – and collating, editing and rephrasing everything I’ve learnt into that human story is turning into the best mental “study” for the next Mars One selection I could have dreamed of… I just need to edit and publish the damn thing so other people can finally read it!

Emotional

The absolute best thing about signing up for Mars One has been how every step of the way it’s forced me to be more me. Truly coming to terms with leaving Earth behind forever in your mid 40’s means assessing what you’re doing every day and asking yourself some really tough questions. In the past I might have been inclined to work a job I wasn’t happy in, or stayed in a relationship that was unhealthy, or collected things that were nice but didn’t have a deeper purpose to me. Not any more – there’s not enough room for emotional uncertainty in those areas when you’re facing something like this.

So I ask myself questions that many people never actually ask, or ever have to answer with any conviction:

  • Do I want to own a house and car if I’m leaving the planet? No. Would I want a house and car if I wasn’t selected for Mars One? Probably not – I’d much rather travel around on adventures, seeing more of this planet while I find another way to get to Mars. Maybe I could buy a campervan and travel around, but if I’m just wandering the Earth then I’d actually rather walk. What do I really need If I’m travelling all the time? Not much apparently, because everything I own fits in a carry-on size backpack and a ukulele bag.
  • Do I want a regular job if I’m leaving the planet? No – I’m too busy travelling around speaking to kids about space exploration. Would I want a regular job if I wasn’t selected for Mars One? Still no, because I’d still be trying to find another way to Mars, and I’ve never had a “regular” job anyway! Maybe I could work for someone else who’s trying to get to Mars, or start my own space industry business and buy a ticket to Mars instead of a house.
  • Do I want to start a family if I’m leaving the planet? No. Would I want a family if I wasn’t selected for Mars One? Still nope. What if I fall in love with someone who wants kids? I can love them and still not be interested in raising kids, plus colonising Mars is going to help benefit humanity more than any relationship would. What if you donated sperm and didn’t have to raise the offspring kid? Sure, knock yourself out! I signed up to be a sperm donor because while I don’t want kids there are people who desperately do want them and can’t, so I’m happy to help provided I don’t have to stick around on Earth to look after them!

Since 2011, writing comedy shows has been the best way for me to process what’s going on emotionally. However last year’s “Cosmic Nomad” – about how signing up for a one-way mission to Mars has already changed the way I see life on Earth – felt like it truly processed everything that had built up over the last 4 years. Cosmic Nomad “closed the circle” on a lot of things, while still leaving the door open to perform the show again (obviously with updates and tweaks) if the opportunity and desire to perform is there… rather than starting from scratch to write another new show.

The core messages that built “Cosmic Nomad” inform how I experience life emotionally, and I’m striving to practice each of them each day not just for Mars One selection but for life generally:

  • It always gets better if you’re honest Honesty applies to what you say to yourself and what you say to others. Always do your best, and act with integrity. I’m not deliberately an asshole (I used to be), but if I’m only going to be on this planet for a short while also I don’t have the time or energy to bullshit people to protect their feelings. Say what you mean, and ask for help if you need it.
  • Don’t do shit you don’t want to do This feeds into the point about being honest, but I definitely don’t have time to do things I don’t want to do. My goal is making humanity a dual-planet species. I’m not interested in spending time and energy doing things that don’t support that goal just because other people might expect me to. Fuck your expectations – I’m doing this for the species.
  • Don’t hang around friends who aren’t interested in what you’re doing I use a rule of thirds when it comes to telling people I’ve just met about Mars One: 1/3 are overwhelmingly excited & interested in it, 1/3 don’t really care, and 1/3 absolutely hate it. I’m happy to talk to anyone about what Mars One is trying to achieve and why it’s vital to our species… but I don’t have the time or energy to convince a friend what I’m doing is interesting. I’m too busy doing that for the general public already.
  • Don’t date people who don’t love what you’re doing The same as the point above, but the stakes are much higher. There’s a great quote from Anna Kendrick’s book Scrappy Little Nobody about relationships: “Something amazing happened to me when I hit my mid 20s’ – I stopped liking guys who didn’t like me back”. Putting humanity on Mars is what I live and breathe everyday: if that’s not what you love about me, I’m going to figure that out pretty quick and walk away. I’ve had more practice at this in the last 4 years than I really wanted, but I’ve also never regretted leaving anyone for Mars.
  • You can’t own what you can’t carry If you can’t pack a carry-on bag and live out of it indefinitely while travelling around the world, how are you going to survive living on Mars for the rest of your life with a lunchbox of personal items? Because that’s all the astronauts heading to the space station can take – a lunchbox that weighs less that 1kg. Ask yourself what you actually need day-to-day, test that by travelling, and constantly try to reduce what you carry while finding smaller & lighter solutions to everything. For example, I haven’t worn underwear in well over a decade – you’re welcome.
  • Never go back to the carpet store If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, spend 3 minutes making your life better. I’m all for second chances, but don’t keep going back to people and situations that you left for a reason. Walk away from shitty people/situations, take the risk of leaving the known and accepting whatever happens next, and don’t go back to people/situations you left assuming they’ve changed just because you have. Carrying everything you own makes walking away a lot easier, while keeping a journal helps you learn from your mistakes and serves as a reminder not to go back to the carpet store.

Spiritual

There’s a huge amount of cross-over between all four of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual segments: running falls under “Physical”, but it also helps me think of new ideas (Mental), allows time to process things that might have upset me (Emotional), and I’ll often have a perspective changing realisation during my cool-down when I’m processing what popped into my head during the run. That last bit is what I categorise under “Spiritual”: the philosophy underlying everything else you’re doing. There’s obviously a lot of cross over with the “Emotional” side of things, but that’s because my emotions are now informed by my philosophy that humanity becoming a dual-planet species is bigger than anything else in my life, my family or friend’s lives, my country or even my global region – it’s something for ALL of humanity.

That’s why it’s really hard for me to give a shit about who won the cricket world cup, when I think “national identity” itself is a fairly pointless exercise.

I’m always looking at how to cultivate my spiritual philosophy further though. I’ve had a steady interest in Zen Buddhism since my teens, mostly because it’s absolutely no-nonsense and it cuts through all the ritual of other philosophies to cultivate pure awareness. Likewise with Stoicism, it’s all about seeing things as they truly are by flipping a problem as well as your perspective. Things aren’t good or bad – they just are, and the better you understand the world you’re in the better you’ll handle whatever “problems” life throws at you.

In keeping with that I’ve put together a reading list that reinforces that philosophy, while also helping cultivate it further through practice:

  • The Little Zen Companion by David Schiller – As of yesterday, this and my battered copy of “101 Things To Do Before You Die” are now the only physical books I own, because I posted away my copy of “The Way of F**k It – Small Book, Big Wisdom” to a friend, and everything else is on my e-reader. I’ve had this book over 12 years now, but it’s short and simple collection of zen sayings and koans is timeless. It’s perfect for just opening up randomly when you first wake, reading whatever pops out at you, and then jumping out of bed to meditate on it.
  • Shackleton’s Way by Margot Morrell – I study this book as much for it’s direct leadership lessons as I do to understand Shackleton’s philosophy. Early 1900’s Antarctic exploration is probably one of the best psychological parallels we have to a Human Mars mission, and as my philosophy becomes more and more about doing rather than discussing or contemplating I’m realising Shackleton’s leadership came from a strong crew-focused philosophy, and through practice that philosophy eventually informed every element of his life.
  • The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday – This book has been my introduction to Stocism as a formal philosophy, and I’ve immediately appreciated it’s practicality. The tone is pretty harsh at times, but I get why the author has taken that approach – plenty of folks need a hard shove to break out of their existing lifestyle and perspective. After reading this I’ve also put “Letters From a Stoic” by Seneca and “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius on my reading list – looking forward to the wisdom they both share.
  • How to be perfectly unhappy and “It’s going to be okay” by the Oatmeal – The Oatmeal is more commonly known making comics about cats and bears, but two of his more recent comics have really hit home for me and I find myself re-reading them regularly. “How to be perfectly unhappy” is the rejection of the idea of seeking “happiness” and replacing it with a deep-seated drive to be interested in the universe – it’s the perfect kick in the ass when I’m feeling “unhappy” about something.
    “It’s going to be okay” shares the story of Gene Roddenberry co-piloting a plane that crashed into the Syrian desert, before he went on to become the creator of Star Trek. I’ve never been a huge fan of Star Trek (the new films are great, but the ear worm scene in Wrath of Khan scarred me as a 9 year old) but I see a lot of similarities between Gene Roddenberry’s diverse and eventful life and my own. This story is an example of Gene’s best qualities shining through in a horrendous situation, and reading it reminds me when things have gone horribly wrong for me in the past my best qualities have shone too.

As I mentioned earlier the four different physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects overlap all the time, and what I’m realising is that the more I integrate these aspects together the more fully integrated I am as a person generally.

While Mars One lists the personality traits they’re seeking in astronaut candidates as Resilience, Adaptability, Curiosity, Ability to Trust, and Creativity/Resourcefulness, the one aspect that over-arches all of that is a candidate’s capability for self-reflection. The better you are at looking at and understanding your own behaviours, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses; the better you’ll understand yourself as an integrated human being. The best self-reflectors fully understand and can articulate why colonising Mars is so important, and why each we’re willing to dedicate and risk our lives to the goal of making humanity a dual-planet species.

I’m incredibly grateful that my experience self-reflecting on my diverse life experiences – then distilling them into comedy – has helped me work out why this is so important… and in the process I’ve become 1 of the 100 people shortlisted for the first human mission to Mars. Getting onto that next shortlist of just 24 candidates to start training will take a whole new level of commitment and preparation though, so I’m excited for the challenges the rest of 2017 will bring.

Finally for my Patron supporters, you can see how I remind myself every day about ALL of this with just one handy journal printout by following this link.

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Space – Getting To Mars [Part 2: Orbital Mechanics] or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Gravity

There’s a common misconception among the general public that physics is boring, yet nothing could be further from the truth. As a physicist I can say with confidence physics is awesome, it’s just physics teachers that are boring. I hesitate to say all physics teachers are boring, because I’ve met a few really exceptional ones… but there’s also been plenty of others who some how manage to suck all the colour and joy out of the incredible relationships that govern our universe. So with this in mind we’re going to tackle arguably one of the most abstract, mathematically complex, and potentially boring concepts in Newtonian physics – Orbital Mechanics – and we’re going to make it awesome instead.

Also I don’t mean in that fake-smiling “YAY!!! ISN’T THIS FUN KIDS?!” way where you’re desperately trying to convince yourself and others that your entire life’s work means something, while your soul slowly crumples inside as you fight the creeping existential dread that the universe is unloving and ambivalent to your existence and everything you do… I mean in a “Holy crap the universe is ridiculous, awful and weird, and I need to know more!” equation & jargon-free kind of way to explain how we’ll get to Mars.

Which I think we can all agree is a lot more fun than reading Nietzsche and embracing nihilism over a cup of tea.

Firstly some basics. If you want to go anywhere in space, you either need to a) increase your spacecraft’s velocity using a rocket or other propulsion system (we’ll cover propulsion in the next article) for a little to increase the size of your orbit and coasting through space as gravity to pulls you around on a curved path, b) have a ludicrously powerful propulsion system to brute force a straight line to wherever you want to go, or c) travel at 88mph and use 1.21 Gigawatts of energy to tear a hole through the fabric of space-time and pop out wherever/whenever you like.

Because we don’t yet have anything even remotely powerful enough to brute force a straight line through space, and neither Doc Brown or Sam Neill have been opening any portals to hell recently, that leaves firing a rocket for a bit to increase the size of our orbit and letting gravity do the rest of the work. The most fuel-efficient way to do this is called a “Hohmann Transfer”, where you increase your velocity just enough to reach where you’re going. When you’re trying to get from Earth to Mars that means burning your rockets when your spaceship is closest to Earth (to get the most out of the rocket thrust) and after coasting for 8.5 months you arrive at Mars at the slowest point of your new orbit.

Burn your rocket when you’re travelling fastest at #1 (Earth), slow down as you travel along the yellow line, arrive at #3 (Mars) when you’re at the slowest point of the new orbit

But “fuel-efficient” is slow and boring – the space exploration equivalent of having sex while listening to Enya. It’s fine if you don’t have anything better to do with your afternoon – or if you want to launch cargo to Mars that can take 8.5 months to get there – but the longer you spend in deep space the more cosmic radiation (and Enya) you’re being exposed to. Humans also need food and water and oxygen and a bunch of other nonsense robots and cargo don’t, so Hohmann transfers aren’t ideal for sending humans to Mars unless you really hate them.

Getting to Mars in less than the 8.5 months means we have to leave faster. Sounds simple, but this gets ridiculously complicated really quickly. The three things to remember though are the more you accelerate:

  1. The straighter you’ll travel and faster you’ll get there (which is awesome)
  2. The more you’ll have to de-accelerate at the other end (which sucks – you now need extra fuel to slow down, or take a mega heat shield to slow down using Mars’s atmosphere and risk skimming off it and into the cosmic abyss)
  3. The exponentially more fuel and energy you need (Newton’s 3rd law: to go somewhere you have to throw stuff in the opposite direction)

We’ll talk more about propulsion systems in the next post, but right now using traditional chemical rockets the quickest we can get to Mars is about 6 months. Which looks something like this:

Interplanetary transfer for the Mars Odyssey probe in 2001

Obviously you also don’t aim for where Mars is when you’re launching from Earth, because it won’t be in the same place you were aiming for 6 months later. Like throwing a water-bomb at a toddler you aim ahead to where your target will be in the future, letting gravity and the easily predictable path of a planet or under 5 do the work for you.

Because Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days and Mars orbits the sun once every 687 Earth days*, they only line up for this kind of transfer once every 22 Earth months.

*Mars has a “day” of 24 hour and 36 minutes called a “Sol”, so 1 year on Mars is 668.6 sols

Alright, enough already

There a couple of other little tricks of gravity we can also use to get to Mars quicker and with less fuel too, namely Orbital Slingshots and Ballistic Capture.

Orbital Slingshots AKA “Gravity Assists” AKA “Big Thing Make Spaceship Go Fast”

Turns out you can actually use an entire planet to speed up your spacecraft if you’re willing to swing in close enough. The gravitational attraction between a planet and a spacecraft doesn’t just move the spacecraft – it also moves the planet a tiny fraction too! So by flying up behind a planet as it orbits and letting gravity swing your spacecraft towards it you’ll slow the planet down (increasing it’s “year” by a few nanoseconds) but massively increase the velocity of your spaceship!

The last diagram, I swear

This is actually what they use in The Martian to get the Hermes back to Mars and save Mark Watney. While Donald Glover is being a mentalist with a stapler in a NASA boardroom, he’s describing an especially powerful orbital slingshot. The speed boost the Hermes gets swinging around Earth is the reason they can get back to Mars so quickly, but it’s also why they’re going so fast at the other end.

Kristen Wiig will have none of your swingline shenanigans

Ballistic Capture

Recently we’ve discovered another way to get things from Earth to Mars that doesn’t require you waiting nearly 2 years for an alignment or having Sam Neill take you through a portal to Hell… but it’s even slower than the “Enya-Space-Sex” Hohmann Transfer. This “Ballistic Capture” approach involves getting just close enough to a planet or moon that it’s gravity slowly pulls your spacecraft into it at low velocity without needing any extra fuel to slow down. It’s just like knocking a pool ball towards a pocket and having it stop right on the edge: it’ll either roll in on it’s own after a few seconds, or you give the table a little bump to help it in.

Ballistic capture was used by the Japanese probe “Hiten” to orbit the Moon in 1990, but until recently it was believed that Mars was too small and too far away for ballistic capture to work. Some clever folks with a super computer recently worked out though that you can launch towards Mars anytime as long as you don’t mind taking up to a year to get there. For a human crew this would be like having sex to Enya playing at half tempo, so you might prefer the trip through actual Hell with the Event Horizon instead.

Before you realise Sam Neill is playing Enya through the PA too

For someone like Mark Watney though – slowly starving on Mars because his potato crops were suddenly freeze dried – this would have been pretty handy. Building a new probe full of food, testing it properly (rather than just glancing at it and saying “Yeah mate, she’ll be right”) and launching it on a 1 year trajectory using a ballistic capture would have been considerably quicker and safer than the mentalist orbital slingshot the Hermes crew do in the film. Although I guess staying put and eating potatoes for a few more years isn’t as “Hollywood” as:

  • Surviving 20 Gs while riding into space on a rocket with the front half of the capsule removed, using a canvas tarp over the holes… for decoration?
  • Explosively decompressing the pressurised living area of an inter-planetary spaceship (full of critical life support systems that can’t operate in a hard vacuum) to slow down
  • Instantly cutting through the dozen layers of rubber, canvas, Kevlar and Mylar in a spacesuit glove, then using the minuscule pressure in a space suit (less than what’s in a football) to “Be Ironman” and fly to safety…

Me during the last 10 mins of The Martian

So there you have it: orbital mechanics that’s awesome and not lame/boring. Obviously there is so much math to dig into if that’s what gets you off, and I’m not one to kink-shame: go and get wild solving three-body problems or dig out on the crazy equations describing Lagrange points, gravitational keyholes, Halo orbits, Lissajous orbits and Horseshoe orbits, or Hill spheres… if that’s your thing.

News – April Newsletter

April Awesomeness

We’re only a quarter of the way into 2017, and I already feel like I’ve had enough of an emotional roller-coaster to satisfy me for the rest of the year. That of course is not how these things work, but it’s certainly been a wild ride and all indications are it’ll only get even more chaotic as we edge closer to Mars One’s final selection phase later this year.

March kicked off with a mountain of amazing events at the WOMADelaide festival though! From meeting science heroes and world-renowned explorers, to speaking to thousands of kids about space exploration alongside a former commander of NASA’s Hi-SEAS mission, and a bundle of incredible public events; the WOMADelaide festival was wonderfully coordinated chaos from start to finish … and you can read all about it right here!

Above: Speaking at the University of South Austrlalia’s sold-out “Life On Mars” event alongside Hi-SEAS IV Commander Carmel Johnston and hosted by Angela Catterns.

Far and away the absolute highlight of WOMADelaide though was being able to present Buzz Aldrin’s signature to Robert Jefferies – a 9-year old who’d written to the Australian Academy of Science in late 2016 when Buzz was touring Australia, hoping to get Buzz’s signature for his Dad for Christmas.

You can read the full story about Robert’s letter in the academy’s article, but it was really wonderful to be able to give something which means so much to someone… even if it was just a little piece of paper to me 🙂

After WOMADelaide the rest of March was a complete flurry of interviews, travel and school visits – speaking to 4,000 primary school students at the Halogen Foundation’s Melbourne event, another 1,000 during six separate school visits, speaking to Gillian O’Shaughnessy on ABC720, Belle Taylor from The Sunday Times, and joining The Daily Edition to talk about Mars One too!

I’ve also been asked to host several new science TV shows that are in the works too, so after filming pilot episodes in March I’m hoping I’ll be able to share more about invading your TV screens soon.

And somewhere in among all this chaos I’ve managed to share all sorts of interesting things with my supporters on Patreon!

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

To celebrate the amazing support I’ve had from fans through Patreon since we launched in December, I also ran my first Patreon Giveaway!

Congratulations to the folks who won hats, t-shirts, and even a remote control BB-8 unit… just for being supporters on Patreon! I’ll be putting most of the prizes in the mail this afternoon (and hand-delivering the rest later this month) so keep an eye on your mailboxes.

If you missed out this time don’t despair – sign up to become a Patreon supporter from just $5 a month, and besides early and exclusive access to my articles you’ll automatically be in the running for the next giveaway!


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.

Click here for all the details on becoming a Patron!


March was absolutely out-of-control, so I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks house-sitting while working on my book – drafts are on the way for $25/month supporters! At the end of April I’ll be back in Melbourne to take part in the Ginger Pride Rally on April 29th, before heading on to speak at more schools and events in Sydney and Canberra.

It’s never dull, so I’m looking forward to sharing the next set of adventures with you all! 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 April brings!

Stay awesome,
Josh