Ever felt you’re completely burned out, begging for a month to disappear and catch your breath… you suddenly get it, and immediately realise you really just needed to sleep in a few days and stop worrying about what happens next? Ever wondered how you stop yourself from over-committing again so things are a little more balanced? Or why we use questions we don’t want answers to in an attempt to engage others with our otherwise bland narrative?
Things have significantly shifted in the last few weeks: away from the mad-dash of constantly travelling over the last 2 years, and into something slower paced but far more productive.
I’ve published more on Patreon and joshrichards.space these last few weeks than any time before, and yet it’s also been less stressful to get things written than any time before… probably because I’ve cut back on trying to speak directly to every damn person on Earth about how I’m trying to abandon them to live on a desolate, toxic red rock.
I’m also really excited to be at the Women in Technology (WA) breakfast event on November 16th – speaking about my weird career path to Mars One, before hosting a panel on the jobs of the future with four extraordinary women leading tech innovation. It’ll be wonderful to talk not just about jobs of the future, but also why we work and how technology is changing that.
Before I jet off to the Netherlands though I’ve got plenty of applications and writing to get on with, and I’ve been sharing most of it on Patreon!
For those of you supporting me on Patreon you’ve had plenty of exclusive content this month, and there’s a LOT more on the way in December!
Patron Only – Greenland Expedition Application – I had the opportunity to apply for a 26-day expedition trekking across the Greenland ice cap in May 2018, but decided in the end not to submit the application – here’s application and why I didn’t submit it.
Things have been just as busy over on my website, as I’ve finally gotten around to posting all the content I’d been too busy to share over the last few months!
Space – IAC2017 Wrap-Up – A huge summary of the 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, covering all the highs and lows across 5 days of total spacey madness.
Personal – Motivation Letter – I’ve been accepted for a rather amazing Masters program in the Netherlands that will start September 2018, and this is the letter I wrote to the university detailing my motivations for choosing their program over any other in the world.
Space – IAC Paper: Laughing At Mars – The paper I submitted and presented at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress last month, detailing all of the adult science engagement (eg. anything outside of a school) I’ve done over the last 5 years.
2018 is already shaping up to be an incredibly exciting year – more intense than 2017 but with a lot less travel and a lot more focused on writing… which is great for all of you reading online, and also perfect practice for someone who eventually wants to live 56 million kilometers away from crowds!
I’ll be honest – at this point I’ve pretty much lost my mind.The last 6 months have been so unbelievably out of control, I’ve barely been able to keep track of where I am and where I need to be next. I hate the word “busy”, but it’s safe to say I’ve been spending more time doing stuff than has been healthy.
All I have left now is to present that paper in Adelaide at the end of the month, and then I have NOTHING planned!
Ofcourse I say “nothing” but what I really means is “I don’t have any thing booked for weeks and fully intend to spend at least a month hiding away in some isolated log cabin away from humans – sleeping in every day, eating better and exercising, and writing heaps… like the Unabomber“. So while all my focus has been on writing and publishing Becoming Martian the last few months, I’m really excited about returning to the basics and getting back to publishing on Patreon and joshrichards.space with a little more consistency this month!
Which means September promises to be a particularly good month if you’re a Patreon supporter!
For those of you already supporting on Patreon, you’ve been plenty of sneak peaks of Becoming Martian along with a bunch of exclusive content;
Patreon Giveaway #2 – As promised I had even more goodies to send out to all my supporters on Patreon to celebrate the release of Becoming Martian! Rather than draw names out of a hat like my previous giveaway, this time I sent things out individually to who ever among my supporters would appreciate each prize the most
[Journal] Approaching the End of 2015 – 7 December 2015 – A journal entry from late 2015 when I was winding up all my commitments in Melbourne after an incredibly trans-formative year, but also gearing up for the incredible journey that 2016 would bring. It should come as no surprise that after the trans-formative chaos of 2017 I’m in a very similar space right now, ready for what surprises 2018 will bring.
Reading, Watching & Listening – September 2017 After missing out on this monthly posts in July and August, this is a hefty update of what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to through the travel/national science week/book publishing chaos.
I’m really proud to say I’ve now published my first book, and it’s launch for National Science Week was an incredible success… but I’m also really grateful that the whole process is nearly over so in October I can get back to what I truly love: avoiding human contact, living like a prepper and writing manifes… errrr… articles. Many articles. Yup.
With Becoming Martian being published in 38 countries on August 12th to mark the start of National Science Week, the chaos is only going to grow though. So if you want to make sure you can actually get a copy, head to www.becomingmartian.com now!
As a media ambassador for National Science Week you’ll be hearing plenty from me about everything science-related happening August 12-20th around Australia. I’ll also be talking about colonising Mars and signing books in Perth & Sydney too!
Thank you all again for your amazing support – Becoming Martian truly has been a huge team effort, and with it being published to kick off the madness of National Science Week I can’t wait to see what happens!
I wanted to share something that happens when you regularly visit schools and talk about something awesome like exploring Mars: the job isn’t just answering questions for kids at the school on the day, it also usually means answering questions for kids (and adults) who couldn’t make it or didn’t have time to ask their question on the day too!
After my run of school visits recently one of the teachers at a school I spoke at was bombarded by their 9-10 year olds who didn’t get a chance to ask everything they were curious about, so when I made my usual offer to answer via email they took me up on it. For those of you curious about what sorts of questions I usually get from students and the answers I give them, read on!
Is part of your job to look for any precious stones on Mars? We won’t be looking specifically for precious stones on Mars, but we will definitely spend a LOT of time looking at the rocks on Mars! Studying the rocks on Mars can tell us more about Mars what it might have been like in the past and where the water is. We’ll also have to study the rocks on Mars if we ever want to try to find alien life there, because if we’re going to find fossils or even living alien microbes or bacteria, they’ll be living in or on the rocks!
How do you eat with your helmet on? Inside the habitat you don’t need a spacesuit, so you can just wear normal clothes and eat/drink normally. When you go out onto the surface however you need to wear the bulky spacesuit with the helmet for up to 7 hours at a time. There’s a bag of water inside the spacesuit with a straw next to the astronaut’s head they can sip from, and there’s is a pouch below their chin they can reach down with their teeth to pull up a fruit & cereal bar to eat if they get hungry. The water is pretty easy, but the fruit & cereal bar is really awkward, plus they have to eat all of it straight away so that they don’t have crumbs floating around inside their helmet! Eating with a spacesuit on is really difficult, so most astronauts eat before they put the spacesuit on to go outside.
What does the impact feel like when you land the space craft? Depending on the spacecraft it can be either really gentle like a passenger plane landing, or it can be incredibly jarring and potentially break your back! The space shuttles landed just like a plane, and even though they were going much faster than a jet when they touched down, they could still be very gentle. A Soyuz capsule however fires a single rocket blast a few meters above the ground to make an impact that could kill you a tiny bit gentler! The spacecraft that will land us on Mars will almost certainly use rockets for a lot longer to land much gentler than the Soyuz, but not as gentle as landing like a plane with a space shuttle.
Soyuz landing with retrorockets firing (middle) and impact (right)
How will you grow fruit and veggies with all the gases in the Mars environment? A friend of mine has been researching exactly what mix of gas would be best for growing fruit and veggies on Mars! The atmosphere on Mars is too thin to grow things outside of a sealed habitat, but she found that if we took the atmosphere on Mars and pressurised it, then added a little bit more oxygen (made by extracting water from the soil then splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen) then you would have the perfect mix of gas for growing plants! Humans couldn’t breathe it because there would be way too much carbon dioxide, but plants would flourish.
What type of plants grow on Mars? No plants yet, but once we start landing greenhouses and habitats there we’ll be able to start! So far Mars One has tested growing radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes and shown that they are completely safe to eat when grown in soil with the same soil with a mix of minerals and heavy metals as we’ve detected on Mars. There are 6 other crops that we know will grow in that same type of soil, but they haven’t finished testing to see if the heavy metals have been absorbed by the plants yet.
The first harvested tomatoes from Mars soil simulant.
Have you discovered any space junk on Mars yet?Depending on who you ask, there’s a few things on Mars some people might call junk that others call “historical sites”! We know the Beagle 2 probe landed on Mars safely in 2003, but it never deployed all it’s panels so it eventually ran out of power and is sitting dead on the surface of Mars. There are rovers like Sojourner and Spirit that have now failed too. Plus there’s stuff on Mars that really is junk – the heat shield that protected the Curiosity rover as it traveled through Mars’s atmosphere was dumped mid-air so that the skycrane could deliver the rover to the surface, plus the skycrane itself crash landed somewhere on Mars afterwards too! There’s a few bits of human junk on Mars, but not a lot – it’s pretty tough to get things there, so we want everything we send to Mars to be as useful as possible.
How can you live without your family? Lots of people in history have had to say goodbye to their friends and family in order to explore places that people have never been before. Most explorers plan to come back again, but millions of people said goodbye to their families forever when they immigrated from places like England to Australia, or from Ireland to the USA. Those families would know that they were starting a new life somewhere else, and while they would miss them they knew that life itself is a one-way mission.
How do you wash your clothes on Mars? We’ll have to be very careful to conserve water on Mars, plus the reduced gravity on Mars means we won’t sweat into our clothes as much as we do on Earth so we probably won’t need to wash our clothes as regularly. There’s still some gravity though, so we’ll either wash by hand in a tub of water or if we’re really lucky someone might design a washing machine that works in the reduced gravity on Mars.
How do you play sport on Mars? We might not be able to play lots of team sports on Mars, and if we do it’ll be really difficult in our spacesuits outside! People have done it though – in 1971 Alan Shepherd played golf on the Moon after sneaking a golf club and some balls onto Apollo 14 before the launch! Mostly we’ll stay fit and healthy by using equipment like you’d see in a gym, but designed to work on Mars.
How do you get materials to Mars to grow crops? The soil on Mars (called “regolith”) has almost everything you need to grow plants, except it doesn’t have any living bacteria or microbes to support the plants. So one option shown in the movie “The Martian” is to use the regolith along with waste from the toilet (after it’s been treated) to make soil that plants will grow in!
What type of safety equipment would you use most of? We’ll use a lot of different safety equipment in all sorts of different ways on Mars, but one of the most important is something as simple as a cable to hook your spacesuit onto! In space it’s VERY important to tether yourself during a spacewalk because you could float away if you aren’t hooked on to the spacecraft, but on Mars hooking yourself onto a cable between you habitat and a rover could mean the difference between finding the habitat in the dark after a long spacewalk, and getting lost in the dark!
Are you hoping to find aliens on Mars? I think we’ll find aliens on Mars, but they won’t be little green men or Marvin the Martian – they’ll be bacteria, microbes, and maybe something like a tardigrade. Tardigrades are these tiny little creatures smaller than a pinhead that are incredibly tough: surviving radiation, freezing cold, blistering heat, and even the vacuum of space! We know that Mars had water and was more habitable than Earth a few billion years ago, so it’s even possible that life started on Mars, hitched a ride to Earth on a meteorite, and we’re actually all descended from Martians!
Tardigrade (Approx. 1mm long)
How do you drink fluid on Mars? You can drink on Mars just the same as on Earth, except water will pour out nearly 3 times slower than it does on Earth. It means that for things like showers, you might get really big droplets instead of the ones you’re used to from your shower at home, but drinking will be just the same.
Will you have a car on Mars? The first people on Mars won’t have a car, but when they first land on Mars they might sit on a rover and have it take them from where they landed to the habitat that the rovers have setup for them. Sending a car or truck for Mars means lots of weigh, and we are only sending just what we need when we first go. In the future though we will definitely want someone to bring a car or big rover we can live inside so we can explore much further from the habitat than we can just walking or sitting on a normal rover.
How high can you jump on Mars? Mars has 38% of Earth’s gravity, so you provided your legs muscles are still as strong on Mars as they were on Earth, you’d be able to jump nearly 3 times higher!
Will you get sick of eating the same food all the time? We have to be really careful about making sure there is lots of variety in our food, because people DO get sick of eating the same thing all the time and it’s important for people’s mood. The very first mission NASA carried out at their Mars simulation mission in Hawaii was to see how they could add variety to the meals while people were living in a white dome with only limited food selections. For 4 months the people inside needed to work out how to use the same few ingredients they had to make all sorts of new dishes. So learning to be creative and take what you have and turn it into something new and different is one of the most important skills a Mars colonist will need to have.
May the 4th wasn’t just about Star Wars Day this year either – I spent May 4 getting through a very full-on day filming something pretty special with the Sydney Opera House, and pushing on into the night filming something else very fun with Andy Park from ABC’s “The Link”. I can’t wait to share both videos with all of you very soon, but in the meantime here’s a photo of me in a spacesuit with a David Bowie impersonator to whet your appetite!
All the chaos was grouped into the last week or two though, so prior to that I managed to have one of the most productive writing months I’ve had in a long time! While the next week or two are still going to be pretty full-on with school visits and other filming, I’m looking forward to spending a month out in country New South Wales house-sitting a gorgeous black Labrador from May 22nd!
It’s going to be great being squirreled away till July 17th to make really serious progress on my book editing, getting ahead with my regular Patreon and website posts, as well as getting some fresh air along the walking trails in Mudgee! It’s ideal timing too, giving me some breathing space ahead of several major speaking engagements in late June, a 3 week trip through the US and Europe in July, as well as all the soon-to-be-announced chaos of National Science Week in August too!
Speaking of productive writing months, it’s been a particularly good month to be a supporter on Patreon!
Reading, Watching & Listening – May 2017 With less travel and more opportunity to write I’ve also had a better chance to diversify what I’ve been reading, watching & listening to this month, so this is a particularly interesting post on all the different things I’ve had influencing my writing
Personal – April 19 – A deeply personal & Patron-only post about why I’ll never work in the mining industry again, and why I bounce back so quickly from setbacks now. I’ve shared tiny fractions of this story on-stage before, but this is the first it’s been written about in full.
Personal – Mars One Preparation Journal Covers – To accompany my post about my personal preparation for Mars One’s final selection phase later this year, I’ve shared the two print-outs I keep glued to my journal and use as daily reminders to remain focused.
[Journal] Cosmic Nomad – 12 July 2015 – A journal entry from mid 2015 when I had the core messages of Cosmic Nomad developed, but hadn’t started to live the things I was saying in the show. This was interesting time of tension between knowing I needed to end a relationship to move forward, but not being ready to admit it.
Coupled with the exclusive content on Patreon, there’s also been the regular posts on my website!
Personal – Mars One Preparation List – After a lot of recent interviews asking “Are you training to prepare for Mars One?” I’m sharing my plan for preparing for the final selection phase later this year, breaking it all down into 4 areas of personal development: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual
Space – Getting To Mars Part 3: Propulsion – Likely to be the post I’ll get the most hate mail for from overly wound-up space nerds, I go through the propulsion technologies that plenty of folks want you to believe will take humans to Mars, comparing them to technologies that will actually do it. Safe to say I won’t be looking for a job with an “old space” aerospace company in the near future after publishing this..
The last prize from the March Patreon giveaway was delivered to fellow Mars One candidate Diane McGrath last week, but I’m already putting together a pile of goodies for the next giveaway in June! The first giveaway included everything from t-shirts to remote control BB-8 units, and I’m excited to announce in the next newsletter what I’ll be sending to Patreon supporters in the June giveaway.
If you missed out last time don’t despair – sign up to become a Patreon supporter from just $5 a month, and besides early and exclusive access to my articles you’ll automatically be in the running for the next giveaway!
With a huge event tomorrow night at Questacon speaking about the future of the Australian and American space industry, radio interviews, corporate keynote briefings, and school talks from country Victoria to Vietnam this month, May is certainly going to have it’s fair share of chaos.
Of course because every armchair expert has their own pet propulsion project they think is critical to the future of space exploration, this is probably the article I’ll have to delete the most hate-mail for. That’s right – I don’t even read your unsolicited and poorly-spelled bullshit before deleting it, but thank you for reading all of mine! And if you haven’t already figured it out this is also the article you’re probably going to get me at my snarkiest, because there are three phrases I hear on a fairly regular basis that genuinely get under my skin and strangely all three are connected in some way to spacecraft propulsion…
#2 “It’s not rocket science” – The sarcastic accusation that something you’re struggling with isn’t really that difficult. You know, instead of helping you, someone will suggest you’re an idiot. Here’s something for all of you unhelpful jerks: Rocket science is not difficult. Rocket science can be explained with literally ONE equation (aptly called the “Rocket Equation”) that’s not even remotely complex. Ready for it? Where is the change in the spacecraft’s velocity, is how fast things are being shoved out the back of your spacecraft (eg. the rocket exhaust), and you multiply that by the natural logarithm () of your spacecraft’s initial mass () over it’s final mass (). You can also express the same equation in terms of specific impulse, but if it’s all feeling too complex just remember you go faster if you throw bits of your spaceship out the back really fast to make it lighter.
Rocket science is not difficult, however rocket engineering is ludicrously complex and exceptionally challenging*. So next time you decide to be an obnoxious and holier-than-thou wanker to someone trying to do something they’re struggling with, how about at least getting the terminology right?
*For why I still refuse to say rocket engineering is “hard”, see point 1 above
#3 “We need to develop better solar electric propulsion to get to Mars” – I’ll get to why you’re what’s wrong with the space industry a little later, but for now lets just say you’re a piece of shit and I can prove it mathematically.
Spacecraft propulsion can be broken down into two big categories: Thermodynamic (using heat to move gas) and Electrodynamic (using electricity/magnetism to move gas).
Rockets are also ridiculously expensive and absurdly inefficient at getting things to space. The Saturn V that launched men to the Moon* weighed nearly 3 million kilos on launch, but only 5,560kg of that was left by the time the Command Module splashed down in the ocean. To put it in context, 0.185% of the original rocket’s mass came back to Earth and the other 2,964,440kg was either burnt as fuel, dumped in the ocean/space, or left on the Moon. Considering each Saturn V launch cost about US$1.16 billion in 2016 figures, that’s a whole lot of specialised and expensive stuff to be just throwing away. * Don’t even start with me Moon Hoaxers – I will destroy you
I’d talk about how NASA’s “Space Launch System” is supposed to (eventually) be more powerful than Saturn V… buuuuuuuut since SLS & the Orion capsule are basically the worst parts of the Bush-era Constellation program that have already cost US$18 billion and are now projected to reach US$35 billion in 2025, at this point it really looks like it’s just a pork-barreling jobs program for a bundle of US Senators through the old conservative aerospace manufacturers. A jobs program which is also takes funding away from real exploration opportunities (like the underfunded Commercial Crew Program) to build a rocket that’s going anywhere. #NotEvenSorry
I currently have a bet with a fellow space geek about SLS: I’m convinced it will be cancelled before it ever flies, whereas she thinks it’ll fly once before it’s cancelled. The loser has to buy the other a ticket to Mars aboard this…
Did you see that gigantic rocket flying itself back to the launch pad to refuel and launch again? That’s SpaceX’s “Interplantary Transport System”, and once it’s up and running in the 2020’s there will be several of these taking 100 to 200 people to Mars every few years for about US$200,000 each – return trip included. They can afford to talk about sending people to Mars and back for less than the median cost of a house in the US (or 1/4 of a house in Sydney) because they’re not dumping most of their rockets into the ocean every time they launch – they’re landing them, refueling them, and launching them again. Building better rockets and not throwing most of them away after a launch means the cost of getting stuff to orbit has decreased dramatically in recent years.
We’ve never used rockets for their efficiency though – we use them because they produce a huge amount of thrust. If you have to get something from the ground into Low-Earth Orbit, it needs to push through the air with enough raw power and velocity to break free of the atmosphere and start falling around the Earth with enough velocity not to hit it again. Right now the only thing we’ve got that can push hard and fast enough to reach orbit is rockets, and no matter whatever weird propulsion system other folks might be dreaming about this is also the only way we’re going to get to Mars in the next 15-20 years*.
*Bring it on Solar Electric Propulsion people – I’ve got your number at the end of this article.
That’s not to say all rockets are the same though – we’ve got all sorts of different ways of making things go boom to get somewhere fast:
Solid Rockets – Basically really big and complex versions of the little gunpowder rocket engines you can buy at a hobby store. They’re cheap, powerful, and easy to make – perfect for launching things like cargo and probes into space.
Liquid Rockets – Pumping flammable liquids into a chamber and having them explode in a specific direction. While the Chinese were the first to get serious about solid rockets back in the 1200’s, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a guy called Robert Goddard started to set fire to liquids to push rockets around. Unfortunately the US’s scientific community and the New York Times just made fun of him for suggesting rockets could work in space.
Correction the New York Times published 3 days before Apollo 11 launched (on liquid rockets) to the Moon… and 24 years after Goddard had died.
Fortunately some people payed attention to Goddard’s research into liquid rockets. Unfortunately those people were also the Nazis, who then used that research to bomb Europe with these:
Liquid rocket engines are way more complex than solid rocket engines essentially because the fuel is sloshing around and needs to be pressurised through tanks & fuel lines for them to keep flying. Going back to my earlier “rocket science is easy, but rocket engineering is hard” – the national security restrictions imposed by each country on who can work on their rocket technology often has little to do with the rocket itself, and is almost entirely about protecting the technology behind the turbopumps that push the fuel and oxidiser at high speed & pressure into the engine bell.
Liquid rockets generally get broken down into two further categories depending on their fuel too. Bipropellants are what you see in a usual rocket launch where an oxidiser (usually liquid oxygen) and a fuel (kerosene, liquid hydrogen, methane, ect) burn to produce thrust. Monopropellant is a single liquid that ignites when it touches a catalyst, and is often used once you’re in space to turn your spacecraft around or give it a gentle push. It’s also usually made of hideously toxic, carcinogenic and explosive liquids like Hydrazine, that apparently smells like fruity-ammonia if you live long enough to tell someone.
Hybrid Rockets – A surreal mix of a solid and liquid rocket. The most obvious and well-known example of a hybrid rocket powers this:
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two
Hybrid engines have a liquid/gas oxidiser that runs through channels in the solid fuel to burn it. They avoid the complexity of liquid rocket engines, and unlike a solid rocket you can stop them once they’re lit by cutting off the oxidiser supply. The downsides are they’re not as efficient as solid or liquid rockets, and most of them are filthy polluters. The fuel going into hybrid engine in Spaceship Two has been changed a lot, but it’s usually nitrous oxide burning rubber. So pumping soot directly into the upper atmosphere isn’t exactly fantastic for things like Global Warming…
Nuclear Propulsion – Launching tonnes of hot, radioactive material into space because it’s really good at getting you places fast… provided it doesn’t explode on the way.
Now I’m only including this because it is a form of thermodynamic propulsion, people have talked about for more than 60 years, folks like NASA & the Soviets have designed entire working systems around it… and even at it’s absolute safest it’s still fairly insane.
Nuclear rockets are outrageously powerful – even the most basic designs are twice as powerful as what’s possible with a chemical rocket. There are dozens of different (theoretical) varieties, however only two have ever been developed properly: NASA’s NERVA and the Soviet Union’s RD-0410. NASA actually had the closed-cycle NERVA XE flight ready and deemed suitable for a Mars mission in 1969, right before NASA’s funding was cut because it was clear the US was going to win the race to the Moon. Both the NASA and Soviet systems still involved using a flying nuclear reactor to super-heat hydrogen in space, however they were designed to be comparatively safe “closed cycle” systems.
I say comparatively, because you have to compare it to the other crazy shit other people were suggesting in the 1960’s. Fun things like “open cycles” designs that used weapons-grade radioactive material and deliberately spewed out clouds of radioactive exhaust.
See the bit saying “Uranium 235 T~55,000 K” leading to an open nozzle? Because fuck everyone else on the planet, right?
Then there’s the folks who designed Project Orion, who clearly felt the only thing better than using a nuclear reactor in space would be to use actual nuclear weapons. Project Orion was about literally firing a nuclear weapon behind your spaceship to propel it in the other direction: for anyone who’s ever played Quake or Team Fortress 2 this is basically a rocket-jumpbut with a nuke.
We’re not talking about just one nuke either: the idea was to have one going off every second, and some of the interstellar designs called for a spacecraft 20km long that carried 300,000,000 1-Megaton nuclear weapons, or “pulse units” as they were so eloquently renamed. Strangely enough Project Orion pretty much ended when most of the world signed the “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water” (aka the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) in 1963.
The fever dreams of Dr Strangelove
Chances are we’ll need some sort of nuclear propulsion in the future to take humans beyond Mars though. Jupiter barely gets 4% of the sunlight the Earth does, so the diminishing light from the Sun makes solar power a lot less viable. It’d also be a great way to reduce the nuclear stockpiles we have, and there’s even some semi-reasonable arguments for taking small nuclear power plants to provide electricity to a colony on Mars – the big issues are obviously what do you do with the waste and what if something breaks?
Nuclear propulsion isn’t completely insane… but do we need to take the risk, when we can get to Mars just fine using conventional chemical rockets? No.
Do you know what else we don’t need to get to Mars? Solar Bullshit Electric Fucking Propulsion.
Maybe you’ve heard on the news about some crazy space propulsion system that uses lasers, ions, or something else that sounds really complex and weird. Chances are it’s either a solar sail (which are slow but cool in their own “Star-Surfing with Sagan” kind of way) or you’ve heard about some variant of an ion drive (which are also slow but cool in their own “Star Trekking with William Shatner” kind of way too).
Essentially ion drives use electric fields to accelerate a gas (usually Xenon) out an exhaust at incredibly high velocities to produce a tiny thrust. The high exit velocity (aka “Specific Impulse”) means ion drives are insanely efficient and capable of reaching much higher maximum velocities than any rocket ever could, and there’s been some really exciting improvements… but because ion drives only throw out only a tiny bit of gas (eg. roughly the same amount of force you feel blowing on the back of your hand) they’re also incredibly slow to accelerate up to those high velocities.
How slow? NASA’s Dawn mission has three Xenon ion thrusters capable of 90mN of thrust (about the same force as the weight of a postage stamp) that can accelerate the probe from 0 to 100km/hr over four days.
Ion drives absolutely have their place, but no matter what bullshit spin some of the old aerospace players might try to pull that place is not getting people to Mars. Ion drives are improving, but unless VASIMR unexpectedly gets a demo flight and proves it actually works electrodynamic propulsion simply won’t be powerful enough to shorten the trip to Mars for humans any time in the next few decades. Especially if you’re only using solar power.
Improved ion drives that run on solar power will be really useful however for… getting communication satellites from Low-Earth Orbit into a Geo-stationary orbit.
Here’s a fun fact: the global satellite communication industry generates over US$200 billion in revenue each year, and makes up nearly 2/3’s of the entire space industry. Reaching Low-Earth Orbit (160km to 2000km altitude) with a rocket is relatively simple, however getting to Geo-stationary orbit (~36,000km and where almost all large communication satellites need to be placed) is much harder, requires far greater velocities, and usually needs an additional stage on the rocket. This extra velocity and additional staging brings greater risks of things going wrong, so naturally launching something to such a high orbit is also a lot more expensive.
No shit – the satellite communication industry is boring, but it’s also really big money. Do you know what is not boring, but also means risking lives for something that won’t make anywhere near as much money? SENDING PEOPLE TO MARS.
Which is why there’s a huge amount of money and research going into solar electric propulsion at the moment, and why I roll my eyes obnoxiously at everyone who tells me it’ll “help with NASA’s #JourneyToMars”. Because they either don’t understand how weak solar electric propulsion currently is, or they’re trying to bullshit me and others into believing a technology being developed to reduce the cost of deploying communication satellites around Earth will somehow get me to Mars.
I’m happy to be proven wrong on all of this, and I’m certain in the far future we’ll use ion drives to zip between Earth and Mars. I’m even sure some of them will even use solar power. They’ve been trying since 1971, but maybe Ad Astra will finally get somewhere with VASIMR afterall. Maybe the EM Drive will be completely validated and change everything. But don’t tell me we to need to pour billions more into solar electric propulsion research to get to Mars – chemical rockets have been getting things there just fine for decades.
In the meantime, Mars One was founded with the express purpose of permanently colonising Mars, and SpaceX was founded with the express purpose of establishing a sustained human presence on Mars too. Do you see either of them talking about needing further research into solar electric propulsion? No? Just using conventional liquid rockets you say?
Recently I’ve had a lot of folks asking if I’m “doing any training to prepare” ahead of Mars One’s next selection phase, and I tell them that every single thing I’ve done since I heard about Mars One in early September 2012 has been about preparing for life on Mars. What they really mean though is “Are you trying to get as physically fit as possible?”. The truth is I’m not even remotely as fit as I was in my mid-20’s training with the Royal Marine Commandos, and right now I don’t want to be.
I’ll say this as gently as I can: the commandos need physically fit and tough folks to carry heavy things and follow orders – there wasn’t a huge demand for higher level reasoning, problem solving, or creativity. So while I was preparing in Australia my writing and comedy both quickly tapered off, and once I started training in the UK they disappeared entirely. It’s not a bad thing – it’s just what often happens when you’re doing something incredibly physically & emotionally demanding that doesn’t require the same from you mentally or creatively.
Finding some balance didn’t even start till more than a year after I’d left the military. In late 2011, just after I’d written my first comedy show, I stumbled across James Altucher’s blog and read an article with the very click-bait-ey title “How to be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps”. While I’ve continued to read and share some of his other articles in the years since, what has always stuck with me most is the 4-part Daily Practice that James describes: doing something each day that’s Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.
No matter what is going on in my life, provided I work on each of these 4 areas a little each day things have always gotten better. So with that in mind I’ve broken my preparation for Mars One selection down the same way!
When I was preparing for the Commandos using a 12 Week Program designed to prepare people for the US Navy SEALs, I was spending about an hour in the pool and another 2 hours in the gym/running 6 days a week – I’ve never been as fit in my life. But while I’m a big believer in the “Healthy Body, Healthy Mind” creedo, right now I really don’t need to be running 50+km a week, swimming 20+km a week, or punching out hundreds of push-ups & chin-ups a day like I used to. It’s not just physically exhausting, it’s also creatively exhausting and time consuming.
Now I do one hour on the rowing and weight machines each afternoon, and that’s mainly for clearing the mental cobwebs after a morning of writing so I can get the creative juices flowing again for new article ideas. When Mars One’s selection is 3-4 months away I’ll step things up, putting Stew Smith’s “12 Weeks To BUD/S” program to good use again so I can exceed the following physical goals before selection starts:
Run 2.4km in <10mins: Achieved, aiming <9:30, Personal Best 8:48
Run 5km in <25mins: Achieved, aiming <22:30, Personal Best 21:03
100 Situps in <2mins: Currently ~80, aiming 120+, Personal Best 125
15 Pullups in <2mins: Currently ~13, aiming 20+, Personal Best 17
25m Underwater in <30sec: Achieved, aiming 50m in <50sec, Personal Best 75m in <55sec
500m sidestroke in <10mins: Uncertain – not recently tested, aiming for <9:30, Personal Best 8:15
Being fit is great, but for now I’m better served by focusing more on eating and drinking healthier than I have been.
One of the downsides of having been intensely active in the past was seeing food purely as fuel, eating absolutely whatever I wanted, and the huge temptation to over-eat rich foods when I’m not currently burning as much. Over the last few years I’ve been been experimenting with differenteating habits, and now with the help of fellow Mars One candidate & body-hacker Dianne McGrath I’m looking seriously at trialing a ketogenic diet. I’ve always tended to avoid bread and sugar where I could anyway, this just means being much more disciplined about it. I’m still enjoying plenty of meats and eggs too before we have to go mostly vegan on Mars – I love my family, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I think I’ll miss bacon more.
Changing the type of coffee I drink has been one of the most interesting shifts though. I grew up convinced everyone drank terrible instant coffee with milk and two sugars: we even called it “Standard NATO” in the Army. With the introduction of a coffee machine at my parents a few years back, an ill-advised soy latte experiment in 2015 when I moved to Melbourne, and developing a taste for Long Black/Americano in Israel last year (mostly because we couldn’t get milk) – it’s safe to say my “writer’s fuel” will become permanently keto-friendly in the next few weeks.
In late 2013 I went to the Netherlands for a Mars One conference, staying for 5 weeks with the girlfriend I’d met in September 2012 literally days before I first discovered Mars One. It’s safe to say I put that frankly amazing woman through emotional hell, for the simple fact I’d promised to leave her for a cold and unloving planet over 56 million kilometers away within weeks of meeting her… and I made it even worse during the 2013 trip by unexpectedly disappearing every hour or so . When she would eventually find me, I’d be squirreled away in some corner reading on my tablet: completely lost to the world with a paper about Martian crustal magnetism or a textbook on space engineering design.
Folks ask me now how I’m so comfortable answering technical questions in interviews – much of that is practice doing interviews, but most don’t realise the shear amount of reading I’ve done over the last 4 years. That ex-girlfriend endured the absolute worst of it because at the time I felt so out of my depth whenever I was asked a question about something I had publicly dedicated my life to. I barely stopping reading for that first year, and I still spend a huge amount of time every day pouring through books and papers to stay up to date.
These days my efforts are a lot more focused though. While there’s new research being released all the time related to both Mars and human spaceflight, that obsessive amount of reading in the first year has now made it fairly easy to glean the important details from papers quickly. It’s also made it easy to recognise and avoid a lot of the sensational nonsense you hear that often sounds like a huge breakthrough in human spaceflight, but usually isn’t even remotely relevant to colonising Mars the way it might be reported.
I’ve also put together my own list of books, papers and articles to read, and there’s several online coursesI’ve beenchecking in with too. What I’m finding most useful however is taking all that I’ve learnt over the last few years and distilling the most interesting and relevant parts into my book. “Becoming Martian” is all about the human side of colonising Mars – not the technology, but how we will be changed by the journey to and settlement of Mars – and collating, editing and rephrasing everything I’ve learnt into that human story is turning into the best mental “study” for the next Mars One selection I could have dreamed of… I just need to edit and publish the damn thing so other people can finally read it!
The absolute best thing about signing up for Mars One has been how every step of the way it’s forced me to be more me. Truly coming to terms with leaving Earth behind forever in your mid 40’s means assessing what you’re doing every day and asking yourself some really tough questions. In the past I might have been inclined to work a job I wasn’t happy in, or stayed in a relationship that was unhealthy, or collected things that were nice but didn’t have a deeper purpose to me. Not any more – there’s not enough room for emotional uncertainty in those areas when you’re facing something like this.
So I ask myself questions that many people never actually ask, or ever have to answer with any conviction:
Do I want to own a house and car if I’m leaving the planet? No. Would I want a house and car if I wasn’t selected for Mars One? Probably not – I’d much rather travel around on adventures, seeing more of this planet while I find another way to get to Mars. Maybe I could buy a campervan and travel around, but if I’m just wandering the Earth then I’d actually rather walk. What do I really need If I’m travelling all the time? Not much apparently, because everything I own fits in a carry-on size backpack and a ukulele bag.
Do I want a regular job if I’m leaving the planet? No – I’m too busy travelling around speaking to kids about space exploration. Would I want a regular job if I wasn’t selected for Mars One? Still no, because I’d still be trying to find another way to Mars, and I’ve never had a “regular” job anyway! Maybe I could work for someone else who’s trying to get to Mars, or start my own space industry business and buy a ticket to Mars instead of a house.
Do I want to start a family if I’m leaving the planet? No. Would I want a family if I wasn’t selected for Mars One? Still nope. What if I fall in love with someone who wants kids? I can love them and still not be interested in raising kids, plus colonising Mars is going to help benefit humanity more than any relationship would. What if you donated sperm and didn’t have to raise the offspring kid? Sure, knock yourself out! I signed up to be a sperm donor because while I don’t want kids there are people who desperately do want them and can’t, so I’m happy to help provided I don’t have to stick around on Earth to look after them!
Since 2011, writing comedy shows has been the best way for me to process what’s going on emotionally. However last year’s “Cosmic Nomad” – about how signing up for a one-way mission to Mars has already changed the way I see life on Earth – felt like it truly processed everything that had built up over the last 4 years. Cosmic Nomad “closed the circle” on a lot of things, while still leaving the door open to perform the show again (obviously with updates and tweaks) if the opportunity and desire to perform is there… rather than starting from scratch to write another new show.
The core messages that built “Cosmic Nomad” inform how I experience life emotionally, and I’m striving to practice each of them each day not just for Mars One selection but for life generally:
It always gets better if you’re honest Honesty applies to what you say to yourself and what you say to others. Always do your best, and act with integrity. I’m not deliberately an asshole (I used to be), but if I’m only going to be on this planet for a short while also I don’t have the time or energy to bullshit people to protect their feelings. Say what you mean, and ask for help if you need it.
Don’t do shit you don’t want to do This feeds into the point about being honest, but I definitely don’t have time to do things I don’t want to do. My goal is making humanity a dual-planet species. I’m not interested in spending time and energy doing things that don’t support that goal just because other people might expect me to. Fuck your expectations – I’m doing this for the species.
Don’t hang around friends who aren’t interested in what you’re doing I use a rule of thirds when it comes to telling people I’ve just met about Mars One: 1/3 are overwhelmingly excited & interested in it, 1/3 don’t really care, and 1/3 absolutely hate it. I’m happy to talk to anyone about what Mars One is trying to achieve and why it’s vital to our species… but I don’t have the time or energy to convince a friend what I’m doing is interesting. I’m too busy doing that for the general public already.
Don’t date people who don’t love what you’re doing The same as the point above, but the stakes are much higher. There’s a great quote from Anna Kendrick’s book Scrappy Little Nobodyabout relationships: “Something amazing happened to me when I hit my mid 20s’ – I stopped liking guys who didn’t like me back”. Putting humanity on Mars is what I live and breathe everyday: if that’s not what you love about me, I’m going to figure that out pretty quick and walk away. I’ve had more practice at this in the last 4 years than I really wanted, but I’ve also never regretted leaving anyone for Mars.
You can’t own what you can’t carry If you can’t pack a carry-on bag and live out of it indefinitely while travelling around the world, how are you going to survive living on Mars for the rest of your life with a lunchbox of personal items? Because that’s all the astronauts heading to the space station can take – a lunchbox that weighs less that 1kg. Ask yourself what you actually need day-to-day, test that by travelling, and constantly try to reduce what you carry while finding smaller & lighter solutions to everything. For example, I haven’t worn underwear in well over a decade – you’re welcome.
Never go back to the carpet store If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, spend 3 minutes making your life better. I’m all for second chances, but don’t keep going back to people and situations that you left for a reason. Walk away from shitty people/situations, take the risk of leaving the known and accepting whatever happens next, and don’t go back to people/situations you left assuming they’ve changed just because you have. Carrying everything you own makes walking away a lot easier, while keeping a journal helps you learn from your mistakes and serves as a reminder not to go back to the carpet store.
There’s a huge amount of cross-over between all four of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual segments: running falls under “Physical”, but it also helps me think of new ideas (Mental), allows time to process things that might have upset me (Emotional), and I’ll often have a perspective changing realisation during my cool-down when I’m processing what popped into my head during the run. That last bit is what I categorise under “Spiritual”: the philosophy underlying everything else you’re doing. There’s obviously a lot of cross over with the “Emotional” side of things, but that’s because my emotions are now informed by my philosophy that humanity becoming a dual-planet species is bigger than anything else in my life, my family or friend’s lives, my country or even my global region – it’s something for ALL of humanity.
That’s why it’s really hard for me to give a shit about who won the cricket world cup, when I think “national identity” itself is a fairly pointless exercise.
I’m always looking at how to cultivate my spiritual philosophy further though. I’ve had a steady interest in Zen Buddhism since my teens, mostly because it’s absolutely no-nonsense and it cuts through all the ritual of other philosophies to cultivate pure awareness. Likewise with Stoicism, it’s all about seeing things as they truly are by flipping a problem as well as your perspective. Things aren’t good or bad – they just are, and the better you understand the world you’re in the better you’ll handle whatever “problems” life throws at you.
In keeping with that I’ve put together a reading list that reinforces that philosophy, while also helping cultivate it further through practice:
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday – This book has been my introduction to Stocism as a formal philosophy, and I’ve immediately appreciated it’s practicality. The tone is pretty harsh at times, but I get why the author has taken that approach – plenty of folks need a hard shove to break out of their existing lifestyle and perspective. After reading this I’ve also put “Letters From a Stoic” by Seneca and “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius on my reading list – looking forward to the wisdom they both share.
“How to be perfectly unhappy“ and “It’s going to be okay” by the Oatmeal – The Oatmeal is more commonly known making comics about cats and bears, but two of his more recent comics have really hit home for me and I find myself re-reading them regularly. “How to be perfectly unhappy” is the rejection of the idea of seeking “happiness” and replacing it with a deep-seated drive to be interested in the universe – it’s the perfect kick in the ass when I’m feeling “unhappy” about something.
“It’s going to be okay” shares the story of Gene Roddenberry co-piloting a plane that crashed into the Syrian desert, before he went on to become the creator of Star Trek. I’ve never been a huge fan of Star Trek (the new films are great, but the ear worm scene in Wrath of Khan scarred me as a 9 year old) but I see a lot of similarities between Gene Roddenberry’s diverse and eventful life and my own. This story is an example of Gene’s best qualities shining through in a horrendous situation, and reading it reminds me when things have gone horribly wrong for me in the past my best qualities have shone too.
As I mentioned earlier the four different physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects overlap all the time, and what I’m realising is that the more I integrate these aspects together the more fully integrated I am as a person generally.
While Mars One lists the personality traits they’re seeking in astronaut candidates as Resilience, Adaptability, Curiosity, Ability to Trust, and Creativity/Resourcefulness, the one aspect that over-arches all of that is a candidate’s capability for self-reflection. The better you are at looking at and understanding your own behaviours, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses; the better you’ll understand yourself as an integrated human being. The best self-reflectors fully understand and can articulate why colonising Mars is so important, and why each we’re willing to dedicate and risk our lives to the goal of making humanity a dual-planet species.
I’m incredibly grateful that my experience self-reflecting on my diverse life experiences – then distilling them into comedy – has helped me work out why this is so important… and in the process I’ve become 1 of the 100 people shortlisted for the first human mission to Mars. Getting onto that next shortlist of just 24 candidates to start training will take a whole new level of commitment and preparation though, so I’m excited for the challenges the rest of 2017 will bring.
Finally for my Patron supporters, you can see how I remind myself every day about ALL of this with just one handy journal printout by following this link.
There’s a common misconception among the general public that physics is boring, yet nothing could be further from the truth. As a physicist I can say with confidence physics is awesome, it’s just physics teachers that are boring. I hesitate to say all physics teachers are boring, because I’ve met a few really exceptional ones… but there’s also been plenty of others who some how manage to suck all the colour and joy out of the incredible relationships that govern our universe. So with this in mind we’re going to tackle arguably one of the most abstract, mathematically complex, and potentially boring concepts in Newtonian physics – Orbital Mechanics – and we’re going to make it awesome instead.
Also I don’t mean in that fake-smiling “YAY!!! ISN’T THIS FUN KIDS?!” way where you’re desperately trying to convince yourself and others that your entire life’s work means something, while your soul slowly crumples inside as you fight the creeping existential dread that the universe is unloving and ambivalent to your existence and everything you do… I mean in a “Holy crap the universe is ridiculous, awful and weird, and I need to know more!” equation & jargon-free kind of way to explain how we’ll get to Mars.
Which I think we can all agree is a lot more fun than reading Nietzsche and embracing nihilism over a cup of tea.
Firstly some basics. If you want to go anywhere in space, you either need to a) increase your spacecraft’s velocity using a rocket or other propulsion system (we’ll cover propulsion in the next article) for a little to increase the size of your orbit and coasting through space as gravity to pulls you around on a curved path, b) have a ludicrously powerful propulsion system to brute force a straight line to wherever you want to go, or c) travel at 88mph and use 1.21 Gigawatts of energy to tear a hole through the fabric of space-time and pop out wherever/whenever you like.
Because we don’t yet have anything even remotely powerful enough to brute force a straight line through space, and neither Doc Brown or Sam Neill have been opening any portals to hell recently, that leaves firing a rocket for a bit to increase the size of our orbit and letting gravity do the rest of the work. The most fuel-efficient way to do this is called a “Hohmann Transfer”, where you increase your velocity just enough to reach where you’re going. When you’re trying to get from Earth to Mars that means burning your rockets when your spaceship is closest to Earth (to get the most out of the rocket thrust) and after coasting for 8.5 months you arrive at Mars at the slowest point of your new orbit.
Burn your rocket when you’re travelling fastest at #1 (Earth), slow down as you travel along the yellow line, arrive at #3 (Mars) when you’re at the slowest point of the new orbit
But “fuel-efficient” is slow and boring – the space exploration equivalent of having sex while listening to Enya. It’s fine if you don’t have anything better to do with your afternoon – or if you want to launch cargo to Mars that can take 8.5 months to get there – but the longer you spend in deep space the more cosmic radiation (and Enya) you’re being exposed to. Humans also need food and water and oxygen and a bunch of other nonsense robots and cargo don’t, so Hohmann transfers aren’t ideal for sending humans to Mars unless you really hate them.
Getting to Mars in less than the 8.5 months means we have to leavefaster. Sounds simple, but this gets ridiculously complicated really quickly. The three things to remember though are the more you accelerate:
The straighter you’ll travel and faster you’ll get there (which is awesome)
The more you’ll have to de-accelerate at the other end (which sucks – you now need extra fuel to slow down, or take a mega heat shield to slow down using Mars’s atmosphere and risk skimming off it and into the cosmic abyss)
The exponentially more fuel and energy you need (Newton’s 3rd law: to go somewhere you have to throw stuff in the opposite direction)
We’ll talk more about propulsion systems in the next post, but right now using traditional chemical rockets the quickest we can get to Mars is about 6 months. Which looks something like this:
Interplanetary transfer for the Mars Odyssey probe in 2001
Obviously you also don’t aim for where Mars is when you’re launching from Earth, because it won’t be in the same place you were aiming for 6 months later. Like throwing a water-bomb at a toddler you aim ahead to where your target will be in the future, letting gravity and the easily predictable path of a planet or under 5 do the work for you.
Because Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days and Mars orbits the sun once every 687 Earth days*,they only line up for this kind of transfer once every 22 Earth months.
*Mars has a “day” of 24 hour and 36 minutes called a “Sol”, so 1 year on Mars is 668.6 sols
Alright, enough already
There a couple of other little tricks of gravity we can also use to get to Mars quicker and with less fuel too, namely Orbital Slingshots and Ballistic Capture.
Turns out you can actually use an entire planet to speed up your spacecraft if you’re willing to swing in close enough. The gravitational attraction between a planet and a spacecraft doesn’t just move the spacecraft – it also moves the planet a tiny fraction too! So by flying up behind a planet as it orbits and letting gravity swing your spacecraft towards it you’ll slow the planet down (increasing it’s “year” by a few nanoseconds) but massively increase the velocity of your spaceship!
The last diagram, I swear
This is actually what they use in The Martian to get the Hermes back to Mars and save Mark Watney. While Donald Glover is being a mentalist with a stapler in a NASA boardroom, he’s describing an especially powerful orbital slingshot. The speed boost the Hermes gets swinging around Earth is the reason they can get back to Mars so quickly, but it’s also why they’re going so fast at the other end.
Kristen Wiig will have none of your swingline shenanigans
Recently we’ve discovered another way to get things from Earth to Mars that doesn’t require you waiting nearly 2 years for an alignment or having Sam Neill take you through a portal to Hell… but it’s even slower than the “Enya-Space-Sex” Hohmann Transfer. This “Ballistic Capture” approach involves getting just close enough to a planet or moon that it’s gravity slowly pulls your spacecraft into it at low velocity without needing any extra fuel to slow down. It’s just like knocking a pool ball towards a pocket and having it stop right on the edge: it’ll either roll in on it’s own after a few seconds, or you give the table a little bump to help it in.
Ballistic capture was used by the Japanese probe “Hiten” to orbit the Moon in 1990, but until recently it was believed that Mars was too small and too far away for ballistic capture to work. Some clever folks with a super computer recently worked out though that you can launch towards Mars anytime as long as you don’t mind taking up to a year to get there. For a human crew this would be like having sex to Enya playing at half tempo, so you might prefer the trip through actual Hell with the Event Horizon instead.
Before you realise Sam Neill is playing Enya through the PA too
For someone like Mark Watney though – slowly starving on Mars because his potato crops were suddenly freeze dried – this would have been pretty handy. Building a new probe full of food, testing it properly (rather than just glancing at it and saying “Yeah mate, she’ll be right”) and launching it on a 1 year trajectory using a ballistic capture would have been considerably quicker and safer than the mentalist orbital slingshot the Hermes crew do in the film. Although I guess staying put and eating potatoes for a few more years isn’t as “Hollywood” as:
Surviving 20 Gs while riding into space on a rocket with the front half of the capsule removed, using a canvas tarp over the holes… for decoration?
Explosively decompressing the pressurised living area of an inter-planetary spaceship (full of critical life support systems that can’t operate in a hard vacuum) to slow down
Instantly cutting through the dozen layers of rubber, canvas, Kevlar and Mylar in a spacesuit glove, then using the minuscule pressure in a space suit (less than what’s in a football) to “Be Ironman” and fly to safety…
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!
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.
It’s safe to say that the 10 months on the road in 2016 with my Cosmic Nomad tour took one hell of a toll, and since it ended the last few months in Perth have been pretty emotionally taxing too – not just processing and revisiting things, but also the challenge of living in a city I have a very checkered history with.
After being knocked back for a job in Melbourne I decided I needed to be anywhere but Perth for a few weeks. So I’ve just spent a week on an island off the coast of Bali (because my inner bogan needed to be exercised) and I’m currently in Kuala Lumpur for the weekend visiting an ex-girlfriend (because I’m an emotional anarchist).
Things are still pretty uncertain, but the time away has already been the right kind of challenging to get real clarity on who I am and how I’m going to keep attacking this year. And I really do mean “attack” because while we wait to hear more from Mars One I’ve already started hitting 2017 in the face like an angry honey badger.
The last few days in particular have been all about jumping in and seeing what happens rather than overthinking things and worrying I’m might not be good enough – applying for a mountain of jobs at Questacon (interviews start next week), chasing up producers for a potential TV show (oh yes), and editing my “Becoming Martian” ahead of it’s publication this year (first drafts available to Patrons later this month).
And somewhere in among all this chaos I’ve managed to keep things up to date on joshrichards.space – here’s everything I’ve posted publicly over the last month;
“Personal – Dear Josh in 2020” – A lot of famous folks write open letters to their younger selves as a sentimental kind of “You’ll be okay” & “If only you knew then where you’d wind up”. Because I’m not massively lame this is an open-letter to my future self saying “You’re always getting better so don’t be a nostalgic wanker”.
“Space – Choosing a Crew for Mars” – Most folks think “The Right Stuff” is some steely-eyed high-flying aviator, but who wants to be locked inside a tin can for 7 months on the way to Mars with THAT? This looks at how we need folks more like Ernest Shackleton than the Mercury 7 on a Mars mission crew.
“Personal – Badgers, Bender & Ink” – Anyone who has seen my 2016 show “Cosmic Nomad” is painfully aware of my ludicurous cartoon tattoos, but you might be surprised to discover they’ve all got layers of meaning deeper than “I want a robot spaceman tattooed on my ass”. Here’s the story behind all of them.
The support from fans through Patreon has grown surprisingly quickly too, with several folks being absolute heroes and signing up for early access to my book drafts and journals! Patreon is a great platform and I’ve started to get a real feel for sharing content through it, so get ready for a mountain of exclusive content there this month!
As promised 2017 is quickly turning into a rollercoaster, and I honestly don’t know what I’ll be writing in the March newsletter… but it’s safe to assume it’ll involve a lot more honey badger-like behavior as I start ripping up the challenges this year tries to throw at me 😀