News – April Newsletter

April Awesomeness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Reading, Watching & Listening – April¬†2017¬†With all the chaos this month, this is a¬†particularly in-depth look (considerably more than most months) at¬†what I’m reading, watching & listening to and how it’s¬†influencing¬†my writing right now
  • Post Visit Mars One Q&A¬†– After a school visit¬†I invite teachers to email¬†any further questions from their students that might have been missed. Recently a school sent me a whole list of fantastic questions, so I’ve shared my answers so you can see the sort of things usually kids ask!
  • Space ‚Äď Getting To Mars [Part 2: Orbital Mechanics] or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Gravity¬†– The first of the “Getting To Mars” series where I make orbital mechanics great again by avoiding equations, boredom or an existential crisis.
  • [Journal] Exciting & Unpredictable – 25 November 2014 – A journal¬†entry from late 2014¬†recognising the “tension and release” of touring and recovery, with an obvious parallel to the quiet few months I had in January/February compared to the chaos now as well as a strong sense of something really big is just over the horizon.

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

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

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


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

Click here for all the details on becoming a Patron!


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

It’s never dull, so I’m looking forward to sharing the next set of adventures with you all! Keep an eye on the website for regular posts, Patreon for the latest news, as well as Facebook & Twitter¬†–¬†can’t wait to see what April brings!

Stay awesome,
Josh

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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.