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Space – IAC Paper: Laughing at Mars

 

The regular space posts have been pretty quiet here for the last few months as I’ve been finishing/publishing Becoming Martian, so I’m happy to say things will be returning to more regular scheduling now that it’s out in the wild!

I’ll be returning to the “Getting To Mars” series in the next few weeks to conclude it before the end of 2017, but first I wanted to share the other thing that consumed so much of my time after Becoming Martian was published – my IAC2017 paper! I originally had two abstracts accepted to the conference, but decided to withdraw one so I could focus on the one I cared most about: summarising the work I’ve done over the last 5 years in adult science engagement using Mars One as a hook.

I’ll share video of my presentation of this paper in Adelaide at IAC separately soon, but in the meantime enjoy reading my paper on how to use comedians and storytellers to engage the public with space!


IAC-17-E1.6.2

Laughing at Mars: Using Comedians and Storytellers for Wide-Spread Public Engagement With Space

Josh Richards –  Launchpad Speaking, Perth, Western Australia

Abstract
This paper looks at a range of space outreach events conducted since 2013 for the general public, with a specific focus on using comedy and storytelling to engage adults not already interested in space. A major challenge in space science communication is making an incredibly interesting subject accessible and relevant to the general public: while few would deny the broad appeal of space exploration to kids, a lack of engaging space science events for adults often means that childhood enthusiasm fades.   Using stand-up comedy and Mars One’s proposed one-way mission to Mars as a science communication “hook”, adult audiences have been engaged and taught complex space science while they laughed during three, one-hour long comedy shows performed more than 40 times in 6 different countries since 2013. “Mars Needs Guitars” blended space science with personal storytelling around the concept that the first Mars crew would need a balance of personalities similar to a stereotypical rock band, and was first performed during Australia’s National Science Week with the support of Inspiring Australia. “Becoming Martian” shared how colonizing Mars would change humans physically, psychologically and culturally; and was also published as a non-fiction book at National Science Week 2017. “Cosmic Nomad” featured at the World Science Festival and shared how being shortlisted for a one-way mission to Mars impacts a candidate’s life while still on Earth, while also explaining the search for extraterrestrial life, the Drake equation, and the Fermi Paradox by using a Tinder metaphor.   General public engagement with space science was also achieved through large scale media events such as 20th Century Fox’s “Bring Him Home” campaign for the Australian release of “The Martian”. Coordinating with numerous television and radio stations, along with global media outlets and a sustained social media presence, the “Bring Him Home” campaign engaged more than 95 million people with space science and STEAM education while the author lived “like Mark Watney” isolated in a glass and steel habitat for 5 days. Numerous external organisations such as Boston’s Museum of Science and Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Science have also been partnered with for ongoing educational impact and long-term space science engagement.

Keywords: Comedy, Storytelling, Mars One, STEM, STEAM

Nomenclature None.
Acronyms/Abbreviations STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics

1. Introduction  A major challenge in space science communication is making an incredibly interesting subject accessible and relevant to the general public. While few would deny the broad appeal of space exploration to kids, a lack of engaging space science events for adults often means that childhood enthusiasm fades. Adults who didn’t pursue a career in science immediately after secondary school are largely ignored by institutional outreach programs as they focus on encouraging students to pursue tertiary study in STEM studies, while significant government funding to encourage STEM skill training encourages this focus. Unfortunately this narrow focus often leads to alienation of adults who haven’t pursued studies and work in STEM fields, as they feel they’re “Not smart enough to understand”, “Not interested in science”, or that it’s “Meant for kids” to even attempt to engage with space science outreach events.

This paper aims to demonstrate that by supporting comedians and storytellers with an interest in space, science, space science can be communicated far more effectively to adult audiences through the incorporation of the arts. Case studies over five years are presented where the author has used public interest in Mars One’s proposed 2031 one-way human mission to Mars as a vehicle specifically for the engagement of adult public audiences with space science through STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.

2. Material and methods

Mars One’s announcement in 2012 of a one-way human Mars colonisation mission generated significant global media coverage, and continues to generate considerable media attention as the project progresses five years on. Utilising a personal interest in space exploration and experience as a professional stand-up comedian, the author began creating comedy shows based around the science and human story of applying for a one-way mission to Mars.

2.1 “Mars Need Guitars!”

With the support of Inspiring Australia, “Mars Needs Guitars!” was a 50 minute stand-up comedy show initially written Australia’s 2013 National Science Week. Named after the Hoodoo Guru’s album, the show was written around the concept that the first four Mars One crew members would need a mix of personalities similar to those found in a stereotypical rock band, and presenting who the author would want to take to Mars and why. Rather than purely aiming for laughs, this show’s intention was to interest adult audiences through a mixture of science-based comedy and deeply personal storytelling, spelling out the very real risks of a human Mars mission in jargon-free language, and finally asking who in the audience would be willing to sign up. The author had applied to Mars One’s 2013 astronaut applications in the April, however applications were still open during National Science Week 2013. With this in mind performances of “Mars Needs Guitars!” concluded each night with an open call for interested audience members to apply to Mars One too.

A trial show was performed at The Butterfly Club (Melbourne, Australia) prior to being performed over three consecutive nights at Scitech (Perth, Australia) during the 2013 National Science Week, with the final Perth performance being filmed[1]. After a follow-up performance at the “Living On Mars” conference at the University of Twente (Enschede, The Netherlands) in November 2013 was also filmed [2], “Mars Needs Guitars!” was shelved so writing could commence on a new Mars One-based show for 2014.

Responses to “Mars Needs Guitars!” were extremely positive, with audiences appreciating the jargon-free approach to space exploration carefully combined with emotion-driven storytelling and especially dark humour. Approximately 350 people in total saw “Mars Needs Guitars!” across five performances in two countries.

2.2 “Becoming Martian”

With the author shortlisted as one of 705 Mars One candidates and building on the success of the performances of “Mars Needs Guitars!” during the National Science Week 2013, “Becoming Martian” was written initially as a 50 minute science communication stage show for National Science Week 2014 before being published as a non-fiction book three years later to coincide with National Science Week 2017. Focused on how the colonisation of Mars will change humans physiologically, psychologically and culturally (“body, mind and soul”), “Becoming Martian” removed the personal stories that had been present in “Mars Needs Guitars!” and presented a far more scientific and objective narrative on the implications of humans colonising Mars.

2.2.1 “Becoming Martian” Stage Show Tour

With the support of Inspiring Australia, “Becoming Martian” was performed across three consecutive nights at Scitech (Perth, Western Australia) during the 2014 National Science Week, with the final performance in Perth being filmed for DVD. After a follow-up performance at the “CultureTECH” festival (Londonderry, Northern Ireland) in September 2014 “Mars Needs Guitars!” was shelved as the author decided to reassess artistic direction.  Responses to “Mars Needs Guitars!” were overwhelmingly positive however the author was deeply disappointed with the stage show, with a strong sense that it was “soul-less” to only focus on the science of Mars colonisation and exclude the raw and deeply personal stories that had defined “Mars Needs Guitars!”. Approximately 300 people in total saw “Becoming Martian” across four performances in two countries.

2.2.2 “Becoming Martian” Show Support Events

Alongside performances of “Becoming Martian”, for National Science Week 2014 the author also coordinated public talks on space exploration at the Perth Science Festival, a space-science and poetry-reading talk “The Physicist and The Poet” in conjunction with poet Bronwyn Lovell, a science-themed comedy night “Shapiro Tuesdays Science Week Special” with the Brisbane Hotel (Perth), as well as a public space-science talk and gaming session “Kerbals on the Big Screen” on the Perth Cultural Centre’s 8m wide LED “Super Screen”.    Follow up support events were also run at the 2014 National Young Writer’s Festival, notably a space-science education and small-team psychology workshop called “How To Be An Astronaut”. Approximately 480 people in total attended six separate support events across Australia.

2.2.3 “Becoming Martian” Book Release

Based on the 2014 stage show of the same name but with radically updated and expanded content, “Becoming Martian” was released as a humorous non-fiction book for National Science Week 2017. After the author’s disappointment with the “dry” nature of the original stage show and on-going delays with a leading international publisher, the book was re-written with a far more engaging and personal tone (while still retaining the essential premise and structure of the 2014 stage show) and self-published.  “Becoming Martian” is currently available in 35 countries and on sale in six Australian and US science museums. Australian print sales currently exceed 200 (as of September 2017) and are projected to exceed 1000 before the end of 2017.

2.2.4 “Becoming Martian“ Book Support Events

Public talks and book launches were organised across Australia to support the publication of “Becoming Martian”. Curtin University’s ChemCentre (Perth, Australia) hosted the first book launch and public talk during National Science Week 2017, with a second book launch held four days later at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Sydney, Australia) as the final event of both Sydney Science Festival 2017 and National Science Week 2017. Approximately 220 people in total attended two events.

2.3 “Cosmic Nomad”

Developed independently, “Cosmic Nomad” was a 50 minute science-comedy show initially written for the 2016 Adelaide Fringe Festival, starting an eight month global tour including the World Science Festival (Brisbane, Australia), Melbourne (Australia), Launceston  (Australia), Ulverstone (Australia), Hobart (Australia), Cincinnati (Ohio, United States), Haifa (Israel) and Cork (Ireland).

Learning from the mistakes made with “Becoming Martian” and capitalising on the strengths of “Mars Needs Guitars!”, “Cosmic Nomad” was written once the author had been selected as one of 100 Mars One candidates worldwide, and shared how being shortlisted for a one-way mission to Mars had significantly changed the author’s personal life – notably what the author would try to do before leaving Earth behind forever. Implications for the author’s relationships were also explored through the search for extraterrestrial life, the Drake equation, and the Fermi Paradox by using a Tinder metaphor. With a clear focus to interest adult audiences rather than entertaining or educating them, “Cosmic Nomad” was deliberately written to make the author uncomfortable and vulnerable (both emotionally and physically) on stage to provide an account of life as a Mars One candidate that was as raw and honest as possible.

Audience responses to “Cosmic Nomad” were overwhelmingly positive, praising it for it’s ability to blend storytelling, comedy and heartbreak while sharing space science. Theatre critics ranged in response from cheerfully positive to deliberately vicious. Given the deeply personal nature of the show and the vulnerability required to perform it however, the author ‘s only response to negative critical review to date has been  howling laughter, often followed by an expletive-laced recommendation for the critic to share their opinion elsewhere. Approximately 2250 people in total saw “Cosmic Nomad” across 24 performances in four countries.

2.4 Individual Events  Alongside the three science-comedy stage shows, numerous other adult space-science engagement events have been organised and performed by the author. The most notable examples between 2013 and 2018 are described below.

2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event

Andy’s Weir’s bestselling novel “The Martian” and subsequent film starring Matt Damon actively embraced  adult non-specialist audiences with space science through humour in a Mars setting. Given the obvious parallels between the main character Mark Watney and this paper’s author – especially in the context of applying humour to space science and Martian exploration – 20th Century Fox engaged the author for a five-day art installation on Circular Quay (Sydney, Australia) in February 2016 to promote the DVD release of “The Martian” in Australia.

This installation was a self-contained living unit with 26.1m^3 of habitable living space under 24 hour video surveillance and glass walls, in which the author had to live while completing challenges designed around being marooned solo on Mars like the character. While some challenges were fictionalised to demonstrate space science and provide interest to the audience outside and watching online; many others such as heat management, electrical power control and communications were genuine installation issues that needed to be resolved through science and engineering. Physical and psychological fitness assessments of the author were also conducted remotely over the length of the installation.  Approximately 50 thousand people viewed the “Bring Him Home” installation on Sydney’s Circular Quay across the five days, while 95 million people engaged with content for radio, television, web articles and social media.

2.4.2 “Moving to Mars”

During the eight month “Cosmic Nomad” tour, the Museum of Science (Boston , MA) contacted the author to host a public talk with four other Mars One candidates, discussing the personal journey for each and the implications of being shortlisted for a one-way mission to Mars. Approximately 350 people attended this 2 hour event hosted at the Museum of Science’s main theatre in October 2016.

2.4.4 The Laborastory

The Laborastory is a monthly science storytelling event hosted at the Spotted Mallard (Melbourne, Australia) where science communicators share the personal story of their favourite scientists from history through a 10 minute spoken word presentation without slides. The author was invited to speak at two Laborastory events in 2015 to share the stories of Sally Ride [3] and Wernher Von Braun [4]. Approximately 500 people in total attended these two events.

2.4.4 PlanetTalks – WOMADelaide

The author was invited to speak alongside  Mars analogue commander Carmel Johnston at two of events organised through the University of South Australia and the 2017 WOMADelaide festival. These events were panels hosted by leading Australian journalists facilitating a discussion on the future of human space exploration and Mars colonisation, with both events being recorded [5][6]. Approximately 1200 people in total attended these two events in Adelaide during April 2017.

2.5 Media Engagement

Significant global media attention has been focused on Mars One and it’s candidates, especially since astronaut applications first opened in April 2013. Utilising this interest in the human story of Mars One, the author has also served as a media ambassador to National Science Week (2016 and 2017), the Perth Science Festival (2017) and the Sydney Science Festival (2017). Between June 2013 and September 2017 the author has been interviewed for radio, TV, newspaper and web content  more more than 200 times [7], sharing space science and personal perspectives on space exploration directly with mass media outlets in nine different countries and syndicated globally.

3. Calculation

Due to the wide range of adult engagement approaches, multiple methods are required to calculate attendance and engagement. Engagement is calculated on reported ticket or book sales. This calculation approach applies all activities listed under section 2 excluding 2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event, and 2.5 Media Engagement.

Engagement with 2.4.1 “Bring Him Home” DVD Release Event was compiled by Frank PR. Engagement with the installation itself was calculated on Sydney city council measurements of approximately 10,000 people passing the Circular Quay Overseas Passenger Jetty (the location of the installation) each day over five days. Social media engagement was calculated as the total listeners, viewers and readers for radio, television and web respectively; being measured by broadcasters and content providers for advertising purposes.

Calculation of 2.5 Media Engagement is from consistent cataloguing of interviews for radio, TV and web content since June 2013 until July 2017, with 157 interviews recorded. An additional 44-47 interviews were conducted during National Science Week 2017 and another 5-8 since August 2017 that have not yet been publicly published and catalogued.

4. Results and Discussion

Engagement from August 2013 to August 2017 is calculated at approximately 55,650 people in total across 47 public events targeted at non-specialist adults. It is important to note that approximately 50,000 of these engagements come from 2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event. Removing this individual outlier, average audience size is approximately 120 people per event.  It is also important to note that the calculated engagement figures do not include adult events closed to the general public (such as invite-only corporate events) or events for students. Total engagement for closed adult events since August 2013 is estimated at 2,000 to 3,000. Total engagement for student events since August 2013 is estimated at 90,000 to 100,000.

Given the relative lack of adult space science outreach when compared to funding for student STEM engagement, considerable future opportunities have been presented to the author to continue to engage the under-appreciated adult non-specialist demographic with space science.   Expanding on the growing success of 2.2.3 “Becoming Martian” Book Release, an audiobook version of “Becoming Martian” will be recorded in November 2017 to engage adults through audio rather than written text. As “Becoming Martian” was turned from a 2014 stage show into a 2017 non-fiction book, work has already begun on turning “Cosmic Nomad” from a 2016 stage show into a non-fiction book being released for National Science Week 2018. Two further non-fiction books are also being actively researched and developed, respectively focussed on humanity’s relationship with the cosmos and our perception of reality.

Consistent engagement with the media has also presented considerable opportunities to work more directly in radio and television. Three television shows based on student and adult space science engagement and education are currently being negotiated in Australia and the United States, with similar standing offers in Australian commercial and community broadcast radio.

5. Conclusions

Effective space science engagement for non-specialist adults is sorely needed to make space accessible to everyone, not just for students or adults with careers in a STEM field. Incredible opportunities for space science engagement are available by supporting comedians and storytellers to add the “A” for arts into STEM to make it STEAM, while further opportunities are available to science communicators willing to develop and present space science in an interesting and engaging manner for non-specialist adult audiences. Mass media is a significant amplifier for communicating space science, provided scientists embrace opportunities to share their work through humour and focusing on the human story of science.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to formally acknowledge Inspiring Australia, which has funded and supported the author’s work through numerous projects since 2013, as well as Mars One, without whom the author would likely never have moved into space science communication. The author would also like to acknowledge the following organisations for hosting and supporting adult space-science engagement events in partnership with the author: Scitech Science Museum, the University of Twente, CultureTECH, Australia’s Science Channel at Royal Institute of Australia, World Science Festival Brisbane, the Boston Museum of Science, WOMADelaide, Curtin University’s ChemCentre, and the Museum of Applied Arts and Science.

References

[1] Josh Richards, Josh Richards – Mars Needs Guitars! (Full Show – August 15, 2013)  youtu.be/fCNoWgSa0fI (accessed 5/9/2017)
[2] Living On Mars Convention, LOMC Josh Richards, youtu.be/kRcyfD2Bk4s (accessed 5/9/2017)
[3] The Laborastory, Josh Richards on Sally Ride, youtu.be/Qiwy2-QXhoA (accessed 5/9/2017)
[4] The Laborastory, Josh Richards on Wernher Von Braun, youtu.be/adNU_2Urir0 (accessed 5/9/2017)
[5] HawkeCentre, Life on Mars, youtu.be/ttnEeLHT8Xc(accessed 5/9/2017)
[6] Radio National – The Science Show, Fly me to Mars!, www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/fly-me-to-mars!/8625154 (accessed 6/9/2017) [7] Josh Richards, Media,  joshrichards.space/media/ (accessed 5/9/2017)

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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Space – Getting To Mars [Part 1: Overview]

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

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

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

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

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

Orbital Mechanics & Interplanetary Transfers

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

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

Launch Vehicles & Propulsion

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

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

Life Support & Psychology

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

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

Radiation

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

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

Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL)

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

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

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

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

Onward and upward!