Space – IAC 2017 Wrap-Up

Much of 2017 so far has been about just keeping my head down to work constantly at specific projects while waves of chaos have crashed down around me, while I try to catch a few quick breaths before the next wave. Between speaking across Australia, touring the US and Canada,  publishing my first book, serving as a media ambassador for National Science Week, a NASA Social event for Cassini, then leaping straight into writing and presenting an academic conference paper… there’s no doubting I’ve been incredibly productive, but it’s definitely not been pleasant. Thankfully I knew months in advance that I really just needed to keep it together till the end of September: once the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide was finished on September 29th the rest of 2017 was relatively clear, and I could finally take some time to process what has been a fairly insane 2 years.

Going into the conference though, I knew I was already wrecked. I also knew I’d become quite jaded with Australia’s space industry and science education/communication institutions. While the word “innovative” gets thrown around a lot at their heart they’re both are quite conservative, so I’ve gotten tired of regularly being taken advantage of or being dismissed by both because I operate as a freelancer and outside of a larger Australian-based institution. I’d even developed the not-so-joking nickname of “Space Grinch” the week before getting to Adelaide because I was struggling to match the enthusiasm pretty much everyone around me had for the conference. Besides seeing a few friends and Elon Musk’s talk, IAC2016 in Guadalajara felt mostly like a week of “old space” throwing around buzzwords and trying to hire new engineering graduates to do the same shit their companies have been doing for 30+ years, so why would IAC2017 be any better? In fact with such a small and hyper-competitive space industry in Australia and such loud calls for the formation of a space agency, IAC2017 was likely to be even worse for someone like me as others jostled and fought to leverage the conference to position themselves for a job in a future Australian space agency.

Then you have to add in that during 2017 I’ve grown to genuinely despise much of the SGAC – the “Space Generation Advisory Council”, which is supposed to be a global not-for-profit to represent space professionals under 35 (eg. me). It should be something I would want to support unequivocally, and I whole-heartedly support their mission statement of providing a younger voice in shaping the future of space exploration, but ever since I heard about SGAC in 2014 something has smelled off about it. Now having been close to someone who’s a representative of SGAC for awhile and seen the abysmal way they’ve been treated by “more established” members though, it’s pretty clear that there’s an in-crowd who use their positions purely to further their own careers through scholarships and as an entry point for leadership positions in the IAF.

I wasn’t alone in Adelaide though – while I may avoid contact with some of ISU’s faculty and administration these days, I’m still incredibly close to some of my fellow alumni, staff and former Summer program students from Adelaide and Haifa, so I was excited to catchup with many of them and see their conference paper presentations. I’d also been asked to feature on IAC TV, hosted by the wonderful folks at Australia’s Science Channel at the Royal Institute of Australia. I also had my own conference paper to present on using comedians and storytellers for wide-spread space science engagement too, which while stressful to develop would serve as a beautiful bookend to my efforts over the last 5 years to communicate space science to adults. We’d also be hearing much more concrete plans for SpaceX from Elon Musk – building on his inspiring but detail-light presentation at IAC2016 in Guadalajara on his new rocket for Mars colonisation.

So with all of this in mind, I turned up to IAC last week exhausted and with some pretty mixed feelings about the whole thing…

Day 1 – Monday September 25

Most of us were already tired before we even started, having arrived 5 days earlier to try to catch up with friends who were taking part in the 3-day SGAC event before the main conference started. Turning up at the Adelaide convention centre nice and early, I decided to avoid the crowds fighting for the best seats to the opening gala and headed into the near deserted exhibition hall. And who would I find cruising casually around in there? Only the Curiosity rover…

While the “real” rover is obviously science-ing hard on Mars, NASA always builds an “un-flown” twin of their rovers for troubleshooting that they also occasionally fly around the world for exhibitions. I couldn’t hang out with Curiosity for long though because the Opening Ceremony’s theatre was filling fast, and as it was the few of us who got seats wound up right at the back while many of my friends had to watch it on TVs in overflow rooms downstairs!

It was a nice surprise, but not a huge surprise, to have the formation of an Australian Space Agency announced at the IAC’s opening ceremony. The news had filtered out to the media a few hours earlier and a variety of articles had already been published, but the Senator still received a significant applause break when he confirmed it at the ceremony. Many of us have been campaigning hard for an agency for years, and many of the folks who have been shaping the dialogue around an agency were also involved in organising the 2017 IAC in Adelaide. The ceremony itself was pretty incredible – especially the Welcome to Country – but I’m still not sure I understand the bit with the little girl using a Hill Hoist to go into space… it looked a lot a ballerina playing Goon of Fortune.

While most of the 4000+ conference participants used the time after the opening ceremony to explore the exhibition hall before the technical sessions started that afternoon, I headed back to the apartment to run through last minute preparations because was going to be presenting at one of those afternoon technical sessions!

“E1.6 –  Calling Planet Earth – Space Outreach to the General Public” was dedicated to activities, programs and strategies for engaging the general public rather than formal education programs. Given I’ve spent the last 5 years in Australia writing/performing science-comedy shows about space exploration, this was my place to shine.

This paper was a really great opportunity to summarise all the outreach I’ve done since coming back to Australia in early 2013 and honestly acknowledge the absurd amount of people I’ve engaged with space science in that time. When you’re working alone doing something fairly unique but are surrounded by people doing related work that’s supported by institutions, it can be really easy to lose perspective I think no one gives a shit about what you’re doing – that all your efforts aren’t noticed, appreciated or effective. Being forced to look back through 5 years of effort and reflect honestly on what I’ve achieved puts it all back in perspective though. When you calculate you’ve coordinated more than 50 global events over 5 years with an average of 120+ people attending each event, that you were the key player in a 5-day art installation that more than 50,000 people saw in person and another 95 million engaged with online, published a book available in 38 countries, and that’s all excluding the ~100,000 kids you’ve spoken to as part of school events at the same time… it becomes difficult to take anyone’s criticism seriously or to feel sorry for yourself 😉

With exhaustion already setting in and the pressure to present my paper suddenly relieved, I was ready to completely bail on the evening drinks at the Opening Reception. I’m glad I stuck around long enough to enjoy the tiny cocktail food and catch up with a few friends, but it was certainly a relief to crash into bed around midnight at the end of a long first day.

Day 2 – Tuesday September 26

It’s not like I could sleep in though – we had a 7am breakfast for the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) to get to!

With minimal sleep I was running on emotional fumes and caffeine at this point, so while it was great to be at the breakfast to celebrate the amazing effort the SIAA has made representing the Australian space industry I was mostly there in body rather than mind. What did snap me out of my fugue state was having someone from NASA interrupt the speeches to deliver a soft-toy koala to Michael Davis (Chairman of SIAA) on stage, and then announce that the koala had just come back from space after 6 months on the International Space Station! Michael immediately donated the koala to Nova Systems director Peter Nikoloff, and Peter wandered around the conference for the rest of the week letting any idiot who asked to get a selfie with a space-koala…

I knew that Wednesday was going to be a huge day and I needed to catch up on emails/sleep, but there was no way I was going to miss the “A5.2 –  Human Exploration of Mars” technical session. Especially when John Connolly – my former boss and now lead of NASA’s Mars Study Capability team – was going to be delivering NASA’s updated plans for getting humans to Mars.

I’ve heard John give a version of this talk 3-4 times over the last few years, and while it wasn’t radically different from previous versions, there was one stand-out change: shifting from a crew size of 6 down to 4. Every NASA Mars mission architecture that I’m aware of has aimed to send crews of 6 or even 8 people at a time, which has created issues with designing a launch vehicle to get back off the surface to come back to Earth: more people ~ heavier capsule. Dropping the crew size to 4 means NASA’s latest Mars mission design is now inline with Mars One’s plans… although they still want to bring them back after 2 years 😉

There were all sorts of social events going on Tuesday night, and I got invites to them, but there was no way the Space Grinch was going to socialise – I disappeared back to the apartment to nap, catch-up on my overflowing inbox, and not look at other human beings for a few hours.

Day 3 – Wednesday September 27

I’d planned to be at another 7am breakfast, but there was no way THAT was happening. My two flatmates both had their most stressful presentations on that morning – Matt presenting his PhD research at the Japanese space agency, and Lisa presenting her Masters outreach work through the Questacon Science Circus – so I focused on trying to make their morning was as stress-free as possible and filming their presentations. Matt was first up presenting his research on how reducing the temperature rocket engines operate at can significantly extend their lifespans.

With SpaceX now consistently reusing launched rocket boosters, understanding how to reduce the amount of damage each launch does to the engine bells means that instead of a booster being used for up to a dozen launches as Elon Musk has spoken about for his Falcon 9 boosters, the kind of research that Matthew is doing at JAXA means that future boosters could be reliably reused for hundreds launches.

Packing up the camera, I bolted upstairs to where Lisa was going to be setting herself on fire in the newly established “E1.8 – Hands-on Space Education and Outreach” session, added this year to the education and outreach stream.

While Lisa managed not to singe anything setting her hands on fire to demonstrate the heat capacity of water, the audience were a little less willing to volunteer after a demonstration of vacuum power went awry and a postcard holding a glass of water slipped and soaked some kid who’d foolishly volunteered to be involved. After drenching the kid, she then made 6 people from the audience hold hands as she shocked them with static electricity, so obviously the rest of the audience were feeling pretty shy when she then asked for a final volunteer to help with a rocket launch… so somehow I wound up doing it, having a pressurised water bottle fired at me along a length of washing line while I was supposed to “catch it”.

I kept the Space Grinch persona up through most of it, but I have to admit the whole thing waspretty fun 😀

It was a huge relief for both Matt and Lisa to have their most important presentations done, and we headed out for lunch with some fellow ISU alumni. But while Matt could now relax, Lisa and I had to get ready to feature on IAC TV’s “Space After Five” aka “Space AF”!

You can watch the full video here, but it was great talking about one-way missions to Mars alongside someone who’s aiming to be the first Martian gardener. Wednesday still wasn’t done though, because almost immediately after the broadcast was the official ISU alumni meetup! After a few heated words with some of the France-based administration staff trying to block my students from ISU’s Southern Hemisphere program from coming in because they’d never met them before, we all managed to crowd into a very small bar, celebrate the 30th anniversary since ISU’s founding with a birthday cake, and then get the inevitable alumni group photos…

Top image: Students of the 2014 Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program. Bottom Image: Students of the 2016 Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program, with John Connolly and myself as staff

it was great to see a few folks and  avoid a few others, grab some delicious pizza and get a few photos… but grandfather space grinch was getting pretty sick of space people at this point, so I headed home while the others kicked on into the night.

Day 4 – Thursday September 28

Thursday started so well. I had a decent night’s sleep, completed everything I’d agreed to do, seen most of the folks I’d wanted to see and given up on trying to impress anyone else – I was totally free to float around and go to whatever presentations or technical sessions I felt like, and on Thursday morning I felt like going to the “SETI and Society” technical session.

Paul Davies is a childhood science hero of mine, so seeing he was chairing this session made going to it a no-brainer. As soon as I arrived it was clear that Professor Davies wasn’t there, but what I got instead was completely worth it. After an opening lecture on how “social media and the degeneration of journalism is the greatest modern threat to serious SETI research”, we had an obituary lecture on an Australian SETI researcher and STEM advocate who’d died from a brain tumour in the mid-90’s, a lecture on the legal aspects of defining alien intelligence and what rights ET would have, and a presentation on von Neumann machines and the Fermi paradox that included slides composed almost entirely of close-up views of kids toys. Without sugar-coating it, this was without doubt the most bonkers 90 minutes of an especially bizarre week. I decided a few months ago that once I’ve written Cosmic Nomad on how Mars One has changed my life, my third book will be about SETI and what kind of message we’d send aliens if we were to ever make contact, and I cannot wait to interview some of these folks for it because it’ll be utterly hysterical.

Before the conference started I’d originally planned to use Thursday afternoon for a nap to try to catch up before the inevitable madness of Friday’s “Elon Musk/After Party” combo, but after easing back on Wednesday and the laughs of the SETI session had brought I was keen to keep soaking up interesting technical sessions. I’d had my paper for “E1.9 – Public Engagement in Space Through Culture” rejected because apparently comedy isn’t “culture”, but was keen to see artists like Aoife van Linden Tol (using explosives for space science art events) and Sarah Jane Pell (using performance art to connect sea, space and the human experience) share their art alongside the large-scale engagement programs run by ESA using cartoons for the Rosetta Probe.

I’m not going to say that I saw or heard anything that is going to radically influence my own work in the future, but it was definitely interesting to see the kind of art practices other people are following to engage audiences with space science.

Day 5 – Friday September 29

This was always going to be the biggest day of the conference, so each and every one of us was pacing ourselves right from the start. Some folks had their eyes set only on Elon Musk’s talk and the closing ceremony, so they grabbed a coffee and started lining up for Elon’s 1pm talk at 10:30am.

I was keen for Elon’s talk too, but had mischief in mind before hand. Two of my more ridiculous former students from ISU were presenting before Elon’s talk on the cost of clearing space junk using reuseable rockets – quite a reasonable proposition – while trying to squeeze as many Rick and Morty references into their talk as possible. With two of my favourite idiots trying to keep straight faces while dropping “Awww jeez” in the middle of a very serious technical session on space junk mitigation, I was obviously compelled to go along and ask questions designed to make them crack.

After about a dozen “Awww jeez” and even a couple of “Merge” references, the confused session chair took the microphone off me, their presenation finished, and all of us made for the door… to find it locked and guarded by a fairly zealous volunteer.

Turns out that security had put entire sections of the building into lockdown to prevent unauthorized people from getting into the room where Elon Musk would be delivering his talk – the only way out of this viper pit of agitated space junk professionals was to use the doors at the front of the room directly between the speaker and the presentation screen. There was no way any of us were leaving until atleast the next speaker was done. About 10 of us stood awkwardly near the locked door at the back of the room, watching a presentation the speaker knew none of us wanted to be there, but all being cautiously watched by the volunteer to make sure none of us made a break into the locked down area on the other side. As the speaker finished up, a radio call came through saying that the lockdown had been lifted… or was that going to be lifted?

Some of my work with the Army I’m still not allowed to share, but parts of it involved learning how to exploit communication breakdowns and using social engineering to get into places I really wasn’t supposed to be. The details aren’t important, but a moments confusion over whether the lock-down was in place was all it took to find myself in the middle of a reception area that at the time was strictly off-limits ahead of Elon’s talk… while friends who had lined up for 2 hours glared at me through the guarded glass doors mouthing “WHAT THE FUCK?” over the shoulders of security guards looking the wrong way. When the doors opened 20 minutes later I blended back into the crowd, texted directions to some friends hiding out in the toilets, before a dozen of us somehow wound up in the roped off VIP seating…

It was absolutely fantastic to hear a more detailed view of SpaceX’s BFR (“Big Fucking Rocket” incase you’re wondering) and to see a dialing back from the engineering insanity shown at IAC2016 in Guadalajara to something that is still crazy but a little more feasible. I’m obviously watching all the developments at SpaceX with my Mars One hat on, and the aspect that has always interested me about BFR is that they’ll need crews to land initially to setup a methane production unit before anyone can talk about launching from Mars back to Earth. It’s almost like you would need a contingent of people willing to potentially go one way to Mars to land first and set things up before return trips become possible… Elon Musk has also repeatedly said that SpaceX is all about providing the launch infrastructure for exploring the solar system, but not in training astronauts. Just imagine if there were a company selecting and training future Mars colonists who would all be prepared to go to Mars one-way that could partner with SpaceX to provide the personnel to build the Mars surface infrastructure for return missions…

After seeing the closing ceremony in Guadalajara the year before I knew I wouldn’t be missing much besides a bunch of award presentations if I skipped it, so I did a quick interview with ABC Adelaide about Musk’s presentation before a bunch of us piled into a bar and then a dumpling house to start the end-of-conference celebrations before the conference had even ended. While most folks headed to the Closing Night Dinner, Space Grinch headed back to the apartment after a quick detour to the bottle shop – settling in for some quiet before everyone else turned up.

All round it was one hell of a conference, but I was mostly relieved when I left. That final day really marked the end of an epic 5 year loop here in Australia, and the end of an especially stressful 2 years. I’ve been pretty much on the go since I moved out of my shared house in Melbourne at the start of 2016, and IAC2017 was really the final commitment I’d made to this nomadic science communicator lifestyle I’ve adopted. I’m not saying I’m about to get a job in a bank, take out a mortage on an overpriced house in Sydney and settle down with a “nice girl” to flop out a few grandkids… because I’m sure as hell not.

But I certainly don’t have to keep trying to convince Australians we need a space agency anymore – we’re getting one. I’ve also spoken to over 100,000 students in the last 5 years, been featured countless times on national radio, television and newspapers, and been a vocal ambassador for space science and science communication throughout it all… and I’m sick of it. Contrary to popular opinion I don’t speak to the media because I want to – I speak to them about Mars One because I want kids to hear about space exploration from someone who’s actively working to live on another planet rather than an astronomer or astrophysicist. Experts in space enginnering are limited in Australia and folks involved with human spaceflight are practically non-existent, so as an astronaut candidate I’ve felt compelled to use my stand-up background to promote the idea in the media. But friends in comedy are well aware that I was done with standup by the end of 2012 – sharing Mars One with the public is the only reason I kept doing it.

Now that I’m writing books and loving it, I can step back from trying to just be a professional speaker and share what I’m doing by publishing it rather than talking about it. I don’t really know what 2018 will bring, but I love that the end of IAC marked the start of a quiet time when I can really reassess where I want to go next and what I want to do to contribute to the goal of making humanity a dual-planet species.

Here’s to taking a breath and preparing for new adventures 🙂

post

Personal – Mars One Preparation List

 

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

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

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

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

Physical

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

post

Space – Choosing a Crew for Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry Steve – you’re staying home

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

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

Wendy! I’m home to the hab!

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

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

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

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

The 28 crew members of the “Endurance”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News – January Newsletter

2016 Is Dead – All Hail 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,
Josh

 

[Private Journal] End of Year Review

Hi everyone!
Many of you may not know, but for the last 5 years I’ve been keeping handwritten diaries & journals of my adventures – ranging from purely mundane “To Do” lists, right through to incredibly personal thoughts on life, the universe and everything. And over the last two weeks I’ve been reviewing all 7 books worth of journals I’ve kept since 2011: taking notes, photographing interesting entries and transcribing them ready to be published on Patreon.

It’s been pretty incredible reviewing just how much things have changed, realising things you thought you remembered one way actually happened in completely the reverse order, seeing foreshadowing of the end of relationships (even if I didn’t realise it when I was writing), and collating notes I’d written but forgotten that will certainly help in the years ahead. I’m just about to start reviewing my most recent journal (covering April 2016 to now) and while it’s obviously recent history I’m intrigued to see what ideas and gems of wisdom I came up with during the year but forgot in the rushed chaos this year brought.

As the journals are incredibly personal (and I have to spend a fair bit of time redacting people’s names before publishing them), I’ve restricted publishing so they’re only available to one of the higher level Patreon rewards. However as 2016 closes and I review all that’s happened these last 12 months, I wanted to share one small entry from the end of last year with all of you as a nice way of looking back. Reading it, the similarities between then and where I find myself now are pretty startling, but I’m excited because of two things:

  1. There is 1000x more clarity and less stress now at the end of 2016 than there was when this journal entry was written 12 months ago, and…
  2. After reviewing 5 years of journals, it’s pretty clear that even though things might get REALLY weird… as long as I keep writing, keep asking myself hard questions, and keep trying to act in the highest & best interests of all, things keep getting better and better 🙂

Enjoy the journal entry, and if you want more the consider becoming a Patron!

All the best in 2017,
Josh

P.S. I love that my scribbling of “Carl Sagan riding a velociraptor while Rick Sanchez rides a honey badger” that became my left shoulder tattoo has bled through the last page 😉

—————————–

Click image for full-size

Day 11, 092
19 December 2015

I wonder where I’ll be in a year. What I’ll be doing, who I’ll be with, and where I’m heading next. I wonder what I’ll have remembered of 2016 best. I wonder what I’ve thrown my energy into most, what has made the biggest difference in my life and in the world.

My best bet is to ask the same questions of myself for 2015 – what have been my favourite moments, what have been the highlights & lowlights. Who has influenced me the most, what have I learnt from each of them, and where have I grown most & least.

Probably best to put all this in the context of Altucher’s 4 steps: Health, Emotional, Mental & Spiritual. Some area have excelled, some have been refined, some feel like they’ve slipped & some haven’t moved. There’s a lot of shit in the air at the moment, so the end of the year clarity you’d expect is being obstructed by the chaff being thrown out into the air. Meditation is a clear and easy way to stop your mind racing – to free yourself from the mind’s bullshit, it’s frantic list making & stress. It’s useful for working through all you’ve set your heart on, but it’s also often excessive. Remember the Cult of Done – ideas that take more than a week to work on are unlikely to lead where you need to go. Form good habits and exploit opportunities, but let go of what feels like work. Some things you put off because you want to “get it right” or you think something is more important – either do it, or let it go. Don’t allow frivolous shit get in the way of your real priorities – focus on what is most important. Ask yourself if what you’re doing is more important than what you want to do. If you keep being pulled by something minor, ask why it feels so important. Is it just to “complete” something? What are you doing it for.

Right now you’re thinking about closing things out – finishing Demon Haunted World, finishing the pages in this book, using all the pages in your A4 book. To do those 3 things in the next 10 days will require concerted reading and writing – NOT typing. Not listening to more podcasts. The biggest one is writing Cosmic Nomad, which will require writing on the A4 book AND typing to Evernote. But you should be breaking this up with reading Demon Haunted World. Keep your other distractions to a minimum, develop those good mental habits; and the fitness, emotional & spiritual elements will follow.

Forget the emails – they can ALL wait till January 4th. Read the book & write the show. GO!