With Becoming Martian being published in 38 countries on August 12th to mark the start of National Science Week, the chaos is only going to grow though. So if you want to make sure you can actually get a copy, head to www.becomingmartian.com now!
As a media ambassador for National Science Week you’ll be hearing plenty from me about everything science-related happening August 12-20th around Australia. I’ll also be talking about colonising Mars and signing books in Perth & Sydney too!
Thank you all again for your amazing support – Becoming Martian truly has been a huge team effort, and with it being published to kick off the madness of National Science Week I can’t wait to see what happens!
As promised in the June newsletter the Becoming Martian Patreon Giveaway is now underway! Check out the video above for a quick glimpse at some of the goodies in the mix, and as always the rules are very simple – just sign up to be a supporter on Patreon! Every supporter gets something completely random in the giveaway, plus higher level supporters also receive:
$10/month – An electronic copy of Becoming Martian as soon as it publishes on August 12 in your choice of ebook format, along with a thank you note for your support
$25/month – A signed physical copy of Becoming Martian as soon as it publishes on August 12, along with an acknowledgement of your amazing support in every copy of the book!
Not only will you get all the exclusive content I only share with Patreon supporters, but you’ll also be the first people to read my very overdue book! Prize giveaway will be held on August 12 to coincide with Becoming Martian being published.
If you’re already a Patreon supporter, firstly THANK YOU! Secondly, you don’t need to do anything – just sit back, because you’ll automatically have things coming your way on August 12! But if you’re not a supporter yet and thinking about becoming one then this is definitely the time to do it!Very proud to say I’ll also be back in Sydney during National Science Week to support an amazing event at the Sydney Opera House August 17th… which is also my birthday!
They say the hardest thing is just to begin… but I’m pretty sure that’s utter crap because I “began” writing a book nearly 3 years ago, wrote the first draft in 26 days, and barely touched it again until recently. These days I’m certain the hardest thing is just getting things DONE: don’t pour constantly over it trying to make it perfect, putting off working on it till you feel “inspired”, or waiting for someone else to come along and finish it for you. Just. Get. It. Done.
So with that in mind, I’ve spent the last week housesitting, watching Netflix, playing ukulele, running and generally finding anyway I could to procrastinate in every way possible to avoid editing and finishing my damn book.
There is some truth to the “hardest thing is to begin” thing though, because as soon as I ran out of things to watch and actually opened up the old book draft documents I started to immediately pick it apart and edit – change a phrase here, update with new research there, cut a section because it doesn’t fit with the overall message, ect. There’s also the added bonus of knowing that you’ve fallen way behind on all your Patreon commitments this month, but there is an absolute mountain of content already written in your book drafts that you can share.
So with that in mind I give you the first draft of the first 3000 words of “Becoming Martian” – my long overdue book about how colonising Mars humans will change physiologically (body), psychologically (mind), and culturally (spirit). Don’t get too attached to any of this – it’s just a draft. And for Patreon-supporters, you can expect to be inundated with more drafts for the rest of the book over the next 3 weeks of my housesit while I write, re-write, edit, tear out my hair, wonder how I could have written something so stupid, consult a thesaurus to find a 4th way to say “crap in a plastic bag”, scribble inane pictures because I can’t find creative common images of what I’m describing, and generally have the same nervous breakdown each writer has trying to publish their first book.
Sitting on the edge of the couch, mouth agape, I was staring at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She smiled gently back, floating ceaselessly in front of me like a flame-haired goddess. Suddenly another passenger appeared from the right of the screen, seemingly on a collision course this perfect being, but with just the slightest push of her finger she sent him sending him spinning away again into the distance. This floating ginger Diana turned back to me, smiled that most glorious of smiles, then effortlessly sailed away out of frame like a dream. Abruptly the scene jumped to a shot of strangers in blue jumpsuits bouncing weightlessly around inside a padded aircraft, with the sounds of angels singing in my head slowly fading back to the overly enthusiastic American narrator describing parabolic flight training… and she was gone.
For weeks I’d been tirelessly working my way through a documentary series on the challenges of sending humans to Mars, and to be honest the eye-candy was generally dismal. No disrespect to the likes of Professor Paul Delaney or Dr Robert Zubrin, but after literally hours of watching aging white men talk to the camera about the finely-tuned personality dynamics required for deep space exploration, I was yet to see much evidence of this “mixed gender crew” everyone was so keen to send to Mars. My initial primal “Who are you and will you bear my children?” response to the floating redhead subsided however, and as I picked myself up from the puddle I’d formed on the floor there was a horrible, dawning realisation: If I were ever to actually meet this majestic space unicorn, it’d probably be while I was stuck to the floor of an aircraft during a 2g climb, hurling up breakfast into one of those sarcastically labelled “Motion Sickness Discomfort Bags”, impotently waving my arms around like a sea turtle stranded on it’s back and while she told she didn’t date other gingers because of the in-flight fire hazard.
You see weightlessness isn’t all champagne, floating red hair and Strauss’s Blue Danube. You might gape slack-jawed at the wondrous freedom of micro-gravity from the comfort of your lounge room, but modern humans have also spent the last 2.3 million years eating, shuffling and shagging in the consistent pull of Earth’s gravity. So while your mind is buzzing at the idea of zero-g backflips, the rest of your body should immediately start screaming “AHHHHHHHH!!! WHY?! Hang on, is that… wait, I think I’ve got… NOPE – MOTHER OF MONKEY ZEUS, WHAT EVEN IS THIS? WHY CAN I TASTE PURPLE RIGHT NOW? AHHHHHHHHH!!!”
At the start of the 1950’s Gemini program, NASA wanted it’s future astronauts to have a tiny taster of what micro-gravity is like. The idea was so they could get a sense of how to move themselves and equipment around without the binding embrace of gravity, while also observing how their bodies reacted to the changing forces. So they ripped all the seats out of a C131 Samaritan military cargo plane, covered the cabin with white cushions so it looked like a padded white cell with a curved roof, then started flying this winged roller-coaster through the sky on what was benignly referred to as “parabolic flights”.
Just seconds from filling their helmets with carrots & peas [Credit: NASA]
Each parabola is broken into two parts that are filled with wildly different levels of joy & despair. For the first 90 seconds the aircraft climbs at a rather aggressive 45 degrees, where you’ll be stuck to the floor with nearly twice the force of gravity trying to force your stomach out through your back. But as the aircraft reaches ~35,000ft, the pilot gently arcs the plane out of the climb and straight into a 45 degree dive, so that for about 25 to 30 seconds your body is still going up while the plane arcs downwards. Done at the right speed, you and your fellow passengers will be weightless. Which is great, because now instead of your stomach trying to come out your back it’s lurching forward trying to float in front of you. Delicious. Then you go back into a 45 degree climb to do it all again – over a standard 2 to 3 hour NASA training flight, the aircraft will do 40 to 60 of these parabolas. Which is why 60 years later astronauts still call it the “Vomit Comet”.
Motion sickness in a deliciously nifty diagram [Credit NASA]
In the mid 70’s NASA replaced the original aircraft with two KC-135 Stratotankers that stayed in service till 2004. And like everything that survived the 80’s, NASA even tried slapping on some shoulder pads and skin-tight lycra by renaming them the “Weightless Wonders”, but to no effect. The “Vomit Comet” nickname has lived on like the Dread Pirate Roberts of motion sickness. There was even an attempt later to call the aircraft “Dream Machines” during the 90’s as part of another sexy re-branding, but unless your idea of a sexy dream resembles a David Lynch-esque nightmare where re-tasting the pasta linguine you had a few hours earlier forms an important part of a bizarre erotic fantasy involving the Log Lady… chances are you’re still going to have a bad time no matter what the aircraft is called.
Not that sexy re-branding is a bad thing when it might genuinely reduce passenger fears. According to John Yaniec – lead test director for 15 years to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Program – anxiety is the biggest contributor to airsickness among passengers, and the chances of re-visiting lunch seem to follow a rule of thirds: “one third violently ill, the next third moderately ill, and the final third not at all”. Which also matches up pretty closely to how Ron Howard and the stars of Apollo 13 fared filming the movie’s weightless scenes. Over 10 days, 612 parabolas and 4 hours of cumulative weightlessness, the scorecard finished with Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon regularly filling their vomit bags, and Tom Hanks and Ron Howard feeling green but managing to keep it all down. But Bill Paxton? He was zooming around grinning without a care on every parabola, and I can only hope he was also having flashbacks to playing Private Hudson in Aliens and occasionally screaming “WE’RE ON AN EXPRESS ELEVATOR TO HELL, GOING DOWN! WOOOO HOOOO!”.
You are really not helping the situation here Bill… [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
So it’s not all airborne despair. Nor do you have to be a trainee astronaut or a Hollywood star to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight. For every day civilians wanting to get a tiny taste of space, a 90-100 minute flight aboard Zero-G Corporation’s “G-Force One” might be as close to the full physiological nightmare of weightlessness as you might want. Founded in 2004 by Peter Diamandis, astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and NASA engineer Ray Cronise, the Zero-G corporation offers regular parabolic flights all over the US for a cool $5000US per person. And thankfully, they also do it with a surprisingly low vomit ratio. It seems most people are okay for about the first 15 parabolas, but then start to go green at around 20, and the cascade hurling is usually in full force by the 25th. So instead of subjecting paying customers to a 3-4 hour flight involving 40-60 parabolas like NASA does to it’s astronauts, Zero-G avoids the dry-cleaning by only performing 12-15 parabolas over a flight. It might only equate to about 5-6 minutes of weightlessness, but a slew of ex-girlfriends will attest this is plenty of time for someone like me to have fun and make an idiot of out myself in front of dozens of people we don’t know. Unfortunately I’m yet to experience a parabolic flight myself though, because if I had I probably wouldn’t be writing a book about going to Mars, I’d be sitting on a back porch playing banjo and enjoying domestic bliss with my curly-haired ginger wife and our half dozen soulless ginger children.
Medically speaking the nausea of motion sickness stems from a mis-match between what we’re seeing, and what the tiny loops of fluid in our inner ear – the vestibular system – are telling the brain. If your inner ear is saying you’re spinning & bouncing around but your eyes say you’re not moving (like when you’re inside a parabolic aircraft), then your brain thinks you’ve been poisoned and gets your hurling reflex cranking. Likewise if your inner ear says you’re standing perfectly still but your eyes believe the world has been flipped upside down you’re also probably going to be tasting lunch twice too.
There’s one of these in each of your ears telling you which was is up [Credit: NASA]
The quickest and easiest way to ease the nausea and re-establish some sense to your world is to simply find a window and look out to the horizon. Not only does this give your visual system a fixed frame of reference that will partially subdue the vertigo, it also provides a psychological “horizon” that you can pin your hopes and dreams on. But as an ex-girlfriend once told me there’s no “horizon” when one of you is going to spend 7 months hurtling through the darkness of interplanetary space on a one-way trip to Mars. With nowhere to look to but the yawning abyss to subdue your motion sickness and relationship issues, the best option is legitimately curl up in a ball to cry yourself to sleep. The actual tears themselves do very little, but closing your eyes stops the visual element from confusing your brain’s balance system, and if you do actually manage to sleep you’ll get a few hours bliss to forget about motion sickness and instead dream of giant hammocks, bouncy castles and emotional security.
Also like an emotional, wailing infant you’ll find chewing on things can ease the nausea too. Obviously you don’t really want to eat anything substantial out of fear of adding to the washing machine that has replaced your stomach, but light snacks and chewing gum appear to help at least distract nausea sufferers. There’s also evidence that ginger can help: chewing ginger root or drinking ginger-infused tea won’t stop the raw sensation of nausea, but it’s been proven to be an effective herbal remedy to reduce vomiting. Chewing on an actual ginger person however will likely result in physical violence by making them “rangry”.
Even if you’re Bill Paxton you’ll still want to take some sort of medication to ease the trauma of bouncing around inside an airborne roller-coaster though. After a few days filming inside the vomit comet for Apollo 13, Tom Hanks got a little too confident one morning and decided to skip his daily dose of Dramamine to see what it would be like un-medicated – this was not a mistake he would repeat. While there’s plenty of remedies that claim to treat motion sickness that are “all natural with no drugs, artificial additives or stimulants” and contain “only the freshest, highest quality Chamomile, Lavender and Frankincense oils”, most space agencies like to give their trainee astronauts medication that actually works, instead of simply leaving them smelling like vomit and potpourri. Same goes with those band things that put pressure on your forearm’s “Nei-Kuan” point: by all means give it a go, but the scientific consensus is that pharmacology & psychology are more likely to win the nausea battle.
By far the most commonly prescribed motion sickness medication is Dimenhydrinate, more commonly known as Dramamine. Combining a nausea-quelling antihistamine with a stimulant not dissimilar to caffeine, Dramamine WILL help reduce the nausea associated with motion sickness… but it might also knock you out in the process. While other medications such as Meclizine may not put you in the land of nod quite as quickly, all current motion sickness medications make people at least a little bit drowsy because they work by telling your central nervous system to calm down instead of freaking out and bringing up breakfast. Which is why most aviation authorities worldwide prohibit pilots in command from using motion sickness medication at all, and why the boxes recommend not to take it and operate heavy machinery. Warnings that I’m guessing probably also apply to flying a multi-billion dollar spaceship to Mars…
There’s also the minor issue that when these drugs start to mess with your central nervous system they can also make you trip harder than Ringo Star writing Yellow Submarine. In sufficient doses Dramamine acts as a deliriant, with recreational users talking about “Dramatizing” or “going dime a dozen”, and giving the drug a whole series of different street names like “dime”, “D-Q” and “drams”… all of which I just pulled straight off Wikipedia because I have no experience with Dramamine-induced delirium what so ever. But my Mum does! A few years ago my parents went on a scuba diving trip out to the the Rowley Shoals: a series of atolls about 260km out from Broome on the Australian north-west coast. While Dad has always prided himself on his cast-iron stomach, the 8 hour boat trip to the shoals took it’s toll on Mum. Luckily though there were some friendly Germans on the boat too, and rather than indulging in their national past time of Schadenfreude by laughing at her suffering, they gave her a couple of tablets that they assured would help the nausea… and it worked! Mum didn’t feel an ounce of nausea while she chased non-existent “molecules” around the deck of the boat for the next few hours, trying to scoop them up gently in her hands and showing them to everyone on board. So the Germans had their Schadenfreude after all, only with less “projectile vomiting” and more “Australian mother of two hilariously tripping her face off while hundreds of kilometers into the Indian Ocean during in heavy seas”.
While Dramamine might be the solution for parabolic flights and regular car/seasickness, the best option for astronauts seems to be the far stronger and longer lasting Scopolamine. Usually coming in the form of a VERY sexy* trans-dermal patch that gets stuck behind your ear like a leech (*not sexy at all), Scopolamine patches slowly administer the drug over several days and provide astronauts nausea relief during their initial adapting to life in space. Just make sure you wash your hands if you touch the patch though, as it’ll cause blurred vision if you manage to get it in your eyes. Scopolamine still causes drowsiness though, so the military found a solution for their fighter pilots: “Scop-Dex”, or Scopolamine mixed with dextroamphetamines. That’s right: the air force took heavy-duty motion sickness medication, and mixed it with the pills your friends used to buy/steal from the ADHD kid in high school before dancing to Moby. Scientists didn’t believe it was even possible to dance to Moby, but the kids you went to school with proved it, while the ADHD kid just bounced awkwardly in the corner as the un-medicated control sample.
Space agencies are obviously keen to avoid having astronauts a) vomit on expensive control panels, b) doze off at the flight panel, or c) throw out all the supplies to make room for an all-night space rave. As a result, a huge amount of research is continuing into how nausea from motion sickness can be minimised in space without medication. One of the most promising technologies currently being investigated by NASA is the use of strobe lighting and LCD shutter glasses that flicker at a sufficiently high frequency to not interfere with your vision. Initial experiments with participants on the ground and during parabolic flights have now shown that a short duration flash 4 to 8 times per second significantly reduces the symptoms of motion sickness. So while I might not be drowsy or vomiting into a paper bag when I finally meet that ginger sky unicorn on a parabolic flight, but I’ll probably be suffering the indignity of having to wear NASA-designed shutter shades and feeling like I’ve helped Kanye West get into space.
Atleast Daft Punk have moved on from the full-size helmets [Credit: New Scientist]
Speaking of indignities, if you were hypothetically to type “zero g corporation redhead” into google image search, Jake Gyllanhal is the 8th picture you’d see. Probably. When you eventually found your ginger space unicorn on the 14th page of results, it’d also be instantly obvious she’s not really a red-head, and all your ginger militia-founding hopes instantly disintegrate right there. In retrospect though if I’m falling in love with a women based on about 8 seconds of footage from a documentary series made in the late 90’s, I’m probably not in the right place emotionally to be contributing to the gene pool anyway.
But for all the wonder and inspiration of space, all the spiritual awakening that astronauts report seeing our beautiful, fragile planet from a perspective that doesn’t see borders, racial or religious differences, just one Earth… chances are you’re STILL going to be tasting your own stomach acid. Your life-altering spiritual experience is being tainted by a little thing space medicine experts casually refer to as “S.A.S.” or Space Adaptation Syndrome. And we can’t talk about Space Adaptation Syndrome without talking about Senator Jake Garn…
I wanted to share something that happens when you regularly visit schools and talk about something awesome like exploring Mars: the job isn’t just answering questions for kids at the school on the day, it also usually means answering questions for kids (and adults) who couldn’t make it or didn’t have time to ask their question on the day too!
After my run of school visits recently one of the teachers at a school I spoke at was bombarded by their 9-10 year olds who didn’t get a chance to ask everything they were curious about, so when I made my usual offer to answer via email they took me up on it. For those of you curious about what sorts of questions I usually get from students and the answers I give them, read on!
Is part of your job to look for any precious stones on Mars? We won’t be looking specifically for precious stones on Mars, but we will definitely spend a LOT of time looking at the rocks on Mars! Studying the rocks on Mars can tell us more about Mars what it might have been like in the past and where the water is. We’ll also have to study the rocks on Mars if we ever want to try to find alien life there, because if we’re going to find fossils or even living alien microbes or bacteria, they’ll be living in or on the rocks!
How do you eat with your helmet on? Inside the habitat you don’t need a spacesuit, so you can just wear normal clothes and eat/drink normally. When you go out onto the surface however you need to wear the bulky spacesuit with the helmet for up to 7 hours at a time. There’s a bag of water inside the spacesuit with a straw next to the astronaut’s head they can sip from, and there’s is a pouch below their chin they can reach down with their teeth to pull up a fruit & cereal bar to eat if they get hungry. The water is pretty easy, but the fruit & cereal bar is really awkward, plus they have to eat all of it straight away so that they don’t have crumbs floating around inside their helmet! Eating with a spacesuit on is really difficult, so most astronauts eat before they put the spacesuit on to go outside.
What does the impact feel like when you land the space craft? Depending on the spacecraft it can be either really gentle like a passenger plane landing, or it can be incredibly jarring and potentially break your back! The space shuttles landed just like a plane, and even though they were going much faster than a jet when they touched down, they could still be very gentle. A Soyuz capsule however fires a single rocket blast a few meters above the ground to make an impact that could kill you a tiny bit gentler! The spacecraft that will land us on Mars will almost certainly use rockets for a lot longer to land much gentler than the Soyuz, but not as gentle as landing like a plane with a space shuttle.
Soyuz landing with retrorockets firing (middle) and impact (right)
How will you grow fruit and veggies with all the gases in the Mars environment? A friend of mine has been researching exactly what mix of gas would be best for growing fruit and veggies on Mars! The atmosphere on Mars is too thin to grow things outside of a sealed habitat, but she found that if we took the atmosphere on Mars and pressurised it, then added a little bit more oxygen (made by extracting water from the soil then splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen) then you would have the perfect mix of gas for growing plants! Humans couldn’t breathe it because there would be way too much carbon dioxide, but plants would flourish.
What type of plants grow on Mars? No plants yet, but once we start landing greenhouses and habitats there we’ll be able to start! So far Mars One has tested growing radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes and shown that they are completely safe to eat when grown in soil with the same soil with a mix of minerals and heavy metals as we’ve detected on Mars. There are 6 other crops that we know will grow in that same type of soil, but they haven’t finished testing to see if the heavy metals have been absorbed by the plants yet.
The first harvested tomatoes from Mars soil simulant.
Have you discovered any space junk on Mars yet?Depending on who you ask, there’s a few things on Mars some people might call junk that others call “historical sites”! We know the Beagle 2 probe landed on Mars safely in 2003, but it never deployed all it’s panels so it eventually ran out of power and is sitting dead on the surface of Mars. There are rovers like Sojourner and Spirit that have now failed too. Plus there’s stuff on Mars that really is junk – the heat shield that protected the Curiosity rover as it traveled through Mars’s atmosphere was dumped mid-air so that the skycrane could deliver the rover to the surface, plus the skycrane itself crash landed somewhere on Mars afterwards too! There’s a few bits of human junk on Mars, but not a lot – it’s pretty tough to get things there, so we want everything we send to Mars to be as useful as possible.
How can you live without your family? Lots of people in history have had to say goodbye to their friends and family in order to explore places that people have never been before. Most explorers plan to come back again, but millions of people said goodbye to their families forever when they immigrated from places like England to Australia, or from Ireland to the USA. Those families would know that they were starting a new life somewhere else, and while they would miss them they knew that life itself is a one-way mission.
How do you wash your clothes on Mars? We’ll have to be very careful to conserve water on Mars, plus the reduced gravity on Mars means we won’t sweat into our clothes as much as we do on Earth so we probably won’t need to wash our clothes as regularly. There’s still some gravity though, so we’ll either wash by hand in a tub of water or if we’re really lucky someone might design a washing machine that works in the reduced gravity on Mars.
How do you play sport on Mars? We might not be able to play lots of team sports on Mars, and if we do it’ll be really difficult in our spacesuits outside! People have done it though – in 1971 Alan Shepherd played golf on the Moon after sneaking a golf club and some balls onto Apollo 14 before the launch! Mostly we’ll stay fit and healthy by using equipment like you’d see in a gym, but designed to work on Mars.
How do you get materials to Mars to grow crops? The soil on Mars (called “regolith”) has almost everything you need to grow plants, except it doesn’t have any living bacteria or microbes to support the plants. So one option shown in the movie “The Martian” is to use the regolith along with waste from the toilet (after it’s been treated) to make soil that plants will grow in!
What type of safety equipment would you use most of? We’ll use a lot of different safety equipment in all sorts of different ways on Mars, but one of the most important is something as simple as a cable to hook your spacesuit onto! In space it’s VERY important to tether yourself during a spacewalk because you could float away if you aren’t hooked on to the spacecraft, but on Mars hooking yourself onto a cable between you habitat and a rover could mean the difference between finding the habitat in the dark after a long spacewalk, and getting lost in the dark!
Are you hoping to find aliens on Mars? I think we’ll find aliens on Mars, but they won’t be little green men or Marvin the Martian – they’ll be bacteria, microbes, and maybe something like a tardigrade. Tardigrades are these tiny little creatures smaller than a pinhead that are incredibly tough: surviving radiation, freezing cold, blistering heat, and even the vacuum of space! We know that Mars had water and was more habitable than Earth a few billion years ago, so it’s even possible that life started on Mars, hitched a ride to Earth on a meteorite, and we’re actually all descended from Martians!
Tardigrade (Approx. 1mm long)
How do you drink fluid on Mars? You can drink on Mars just the same as on Earth, except water will pour out nearly 3 times slower than it does on Earth. It means that for things like showers, you might get really big droplets instead of the ones you’re used to from your shower at home, but drinking will be just the same.
Will you have a car on Mars? The first people on Mars won’t have a car, but when they first land on Mars they might sit on a rover and have it take them from where they landed to the habitat that the rovers have setup for them. Sending a car or truck for Mars means lots of weigh, and we are only sending just what we need when we first go. In the future though we will definitely want someone to bring a car or big rover we can live inside so we can explore much further from the habitat than we can just walking or sitting on a normal rover.
How high can you jump on Mars? Mars has 38% of Earth’s gravity, so you provided your legs muscles are still as strong on Mars as they were on Earth, you’d be able to jump nearly 3 times higher!
Will you get sick of eating the same food all the time? We have to be really careful about making sure there is lots of variety in our food, because people DO get sick of eating the same thing all the time and it’s important for people’s mood. The very first mission NASA carried out at their Mars simulation mission in Hawaii was to see how they could add variety to the meals while people were living in a white dome with only limited food selections. For 4 months the people inside needed to work out how to use the same few ingredients they had to make all sorts of new dishes. So learning to be creative and take what you have and turn it into something new and different is one of the most important skills a Mars colonist will need to have.
May the 4th wasn’t just about Star Wars Day this year either – I spent May 4 getting through a very full-on day filming something pretty special with the Sydney Opera House, and pushing on into the night filming something else very fun with Andy Park from ABC’s “The Link”. I can’t wait to share both videos with all of you very soon, but in the meantime here’s a photo of me in a spacesuit with a David Bowie impersonator to whet your appetite!
All the chaos was grouped into the last week or two though, so prior to that I managed to have one of the most productive writing months I’ve had in a long time! While the next week or two are still going to be pretty full-on with school visits and other filming, I’m looking forward to spending a month out in country New South Wales house-sitting a gorgeous black Labrador from May 22nd!
It’s going to be great being squirreled away till July 17th to make really serious progress on my book editing, getting ahead with my regular Patreon and website posts, as well as getting some fresh air along the walking trails in Mudgee! It’s ideal timing too, giving me some breathing space ahead of several major speaking engagements in late June, a 3 week trip through the US and Europe in July, as well as all the soon-to-be-announced chaos of National Science Week in August too!
Speaking of productive writing months, it’s been a particularly good month to be a supporter on Patreon!
Reading, Watching & Listening – May 2017 With less travel and more opportunity to write I’ve also had a better chance to diversify what I’ve been reading, watching & listening to this month, so this is a particularly interesting post on all the different things I’ve had influencing my writing
Personal – April 19 – A deeply personal & Patron-only post about why I’ll never work in the mining industry again, and why I bounce back so quickly from setbacks now. I’ve shared tiny fractions of this story on-stage before, but this is the first it’s been written about in full.
Personal – Mars One Preparation Journal Covers – To accompany my post about my personal preparation for Mars One’s final selection phase later this year, I’ve shared the two print-outs I keep glued to my journal and use as daily reminders to remain focused.
[Journal] Cosmic Nomad – 12 July 2015 – A journal entry from mid 2015 when I had the core messages of Cosmic Nomad developed, but hadn’t started to live the things I was saying in the show. This was interesting time of tension between knowing I needed to end a relationship to move forward, but not being ready to admit it.
Coupled with the exclusive content on Patreon, there’s also been the regular posts on my website!
Personal – Mars One Preparation List – After a lot of recent interviews asking “Are you training to prepare for Mars One?” I’m sharing my plan for preparing for the final selection phase later this year, breaking it all down into 4 areas of personal development: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual
Space – Getting To Mars Part 3: Propulsion – Likely to be the post I’ll get the most hate mail for from overly wound-up space nerds, I go through the propulsion technologies that plenty of folks want you to believe will take humans to Mars, comparing them to technologies that will actually do it. Safe to say I won’t be looking for a job with an “old space” aerospace company in the near future after publishing this..
The last prize from the March Patreon giveaway was delivered to fellow Mars One candidate Diane McGrath last week, but I’m already putting together a pile of goodies for the next giveaway in June! The first giveaway included everything from t-shirts to remote control BB-8 units, and I’m excited to announce in the next newsletter what I’ll be sending to Patreon supporters in the June giveaway.
If you missed out last 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!
With a huge event tomorrow night at Questacon speaking about the future of the Australian and American space industry, radio interviews, corporate keynote briefings, and school talks from country Victoria to Vietnam this month, May is certainly going to have it’s fair share of chaos.
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…
#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 is the change in the spacecraft’s velocity, 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 () of your spacecraft’s initial mass () over it’s final mass (). 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).
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.
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-jumpbut 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.
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).
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.
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?
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!
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 <10mins: Achieved, aiming <9:30, Personal Best 8:48
Run 5km in <25mins: Achieved, 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 <30sec: Achieved, 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 differenteating 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.
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.
I’ve also put together my own list of books, papers and articles to read, and there’s several online coursesI’ve beenchecking 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!
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 Nobodyabout 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.
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 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.
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 leavefaster. Sounds simple, but this gets ridiculously complicated really quickly. The three things to remember though are the more you accelerate:
The straighter you’ll travel and faster you’ll get there (which is awesome)
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)
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.
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
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…
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.
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.
Reading, Watching & Listening – April 2017 With all the chaos this month, this is a particularly in-depth look (considerably more than most months) at what I’m reading, watching & listening to and how it’s influencing my writing right now
Post Visit Mars One Q&A – After a school visit I invite teachers to email any further questions from their students that might have been missed. Recently a school sent me a whole list of fantastic questions, so I’ve shared my answers so you can see the sort of things usually kids ask!
[Journal] Exciting & Unpredictable – 25 November 2014 – A journal entry from late 2014 recognising the “tension and release” of touring and recovery, with an obvious parallel to the quiet few months I had in January/February compared to the chaos now as well as a strong sense of something really big is just over the horizon.
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!
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.
Some times there are months that seem to drag out relentlessly without the slightest movement. No matter what you do, opportunities seem scarce, unnecessarily tough to exploit, and the effort you put in doesn’t seem to balance with what you get in return. The days draw out and you wonder if it’s worth it , if you’re making an impact and improving the world by being in it.
And then there are times like this…
I flew into Perth after nearly 2 weeks in Kuala Lumpur – trying to break the emotional slog of being in Perth for 4 months while reconnecting with an old girlfriend living there. As I’d jokingly predicted earlier, reconnecting with the ex went horribly & hilariously wrong – an important reminder to never go back to the carpet store.
The time away certainly broke the slog from the previous few months though: there’s been an incredible surge of opportunities being thrown at me from everywhere, so I’ve been balancing all them with alongside getting myself to Adelaide for the long awaited WOMADelaide festival!
From landing to leaving, I had less than 48 hours in Perth to try and pack up as much of my childhood room as possible, load what I needed for the next month into a bag and a ukulele case, see an old friend, and fly out to Adelaide. Oh yeah, and casually try to submit 7 different abstracts to the 2017 International Astronautical Congress before the May 8th deadline. Generally people attending the conference submit 1or2 abstracts at most, and spend the rest of their time networking… but apparently I didn’t get the memo. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to be there yet because IAC2017 may clash with Mars One’s final selection phase, but if I am there I’ll apparently be sharing my nonsense with 7 of the 9 different outreach and education categories – only those at the undergraduate & postgraduate education seminars will be spared.
Me after submitting 7 IAC abstracts in less than 24 hours…
After landing I settled into my hotel the folks from WOMAD had organised, had dinner, and was on my way to speak on a fellow comedian’s podcast when I bumped into yet another ex-girlfriend on the street… at 11pm on a Wednesday night… in a city neither of us live in. The podcast was cancelled to boot, because apparently my life is some lame sitcom now, and to top it all off another friend got in touch the next morning (after a month of total radio silence) to say we shouldn’t talk anymore.
Things shifted gears the following evening though, when the University of South Australia (UniSA) hosted an event where Hi-SEAS IV Commander Carmel Johnston and I spoke to Angela Catterns about life on Mars. Carmel and I have emailed for the last few months, but hadn’t met until just before we took to the stage to speak in front of 800+ people together! We became fast friends, and had a perfectly balanced dynamic on-stage. It’s clear why she was selected to command NASA’s year-long Mars simulation in Hawaii: she’s incredibly personable and empathetic; cool-headed, firm in her convictions, and clear in her personal boundaries; and above all practical in her actions. Exactly the kind of personality you’d want commanding a human mission to Mars.
Angela Catterns (left) interviewing Carmel Johnston (right) and yours truly
The fun didn’t stop after the event though – that’s when the questions really started! UniSA had organised a VIP Meet & Greet with food for us afterwards, but we were so overwhelmed with questions that neither Carmel or I had much of an opportunity to eat. Several schools had been invited to see us speak, so naturally their students were eager to throw a million questions at both of us while we glanced over their shoulders at the disappearing food trays. The folks from UniSA managed to save us a little something to eat once the crowd started to thin-out, but after an hour-long onstage chat immediately followed by 2 hours of Q&A both of us were wrecked by the time we got to eat and head back to the hotel!
The wonderful folks from Australia’s Science Channel took Carmel and I out to lunch, but my work definitely wasn’t done yet. I’ve been chatting to a production company in the US for the last year about a project involving space and science communication – I can’t talk about it much yet, and it may never go anywhere, but it was certainly exciting to slip back into the studio and film some pieces to camera for what could be an amazing project in the future.
With the side projects complete, it was finally time to get into the WOMADelaide festival itself! Carmel and I headed to Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens for the official opening ceremony for the festival, enjoying the opportunity to meet some of the incredible people involved in the seclusion of the Artist’s area. The personal highlight was briefly meeting Antarctic explorer, Shackleton Epic Leader and personal hero Tim Jarvis:
Tim Jarvis (left) with Barry Grey (right) during their attempt to recreate Shackleton’s epic journey to reach civilisation and rescue the crew of the Endurance
Finally the event I was in Adelaide for had finally come: the WOMADelaide Planet Talks. Carmel and I had an absolutely amazing time speaking to a sold-out audience about “Human Life On Mars”, and it was an absolute honor to meet and have the event hosted by science communication and radio broadcasting legend Robyn Williams.
The Academy unfortunately hadn’t been able to get hold of Buzz, so they’d managed to get Professor Brian Schmidt to sign a poster instead. Now it just so happens that as Chancellor of the International Space University, Buzz Aldrin signs every certificate ISU issues. Which means I – the material good-shunning space hobo that I am – had a signature from Buzz Aldrin on a piece of paper hanging on my wall. Since I’m dedicated to reducing my footprint on Earth down a backpack and a ukulele, it was a pretty easy decision to send the Academy a Facebook message and say that I’d like to donate my copy of Buzz’s signature to the family.
So after we’d finished the Planet Talk, Robyn Williams and I invited Robert up on stage to accept the signature and give it to his Dad. It was pretty wonderful to have the Robert’s family attend the talk, and to be able to donate something which means so much to a family that would have otherwise just hung on my wall at my parents place underappreciated.
All in all it’s been a pretty wild few weeks, but things are really just getting started! I’ve been in Melbourne for the last few days starting the final stage of very personal project that’s been on hold for nearly a year and a half (I’ll share in the next few days what’s going on in a separate post for Patrons-only), and I’m about to jump on a plane to Sydney for a day of filming and TV interviews, zipping out to Canberra for the weekend, and then back to Melbourne for school visits as well as a trip to Perth to visit even more schools.
Absolutely no idea what I’m doing in April (or with much of the year generally for that matter) but there’s certainly no shortage of exciting opportunities and potential – I’ll keep you posted!