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Space – IAC Paper: Laughing at Mars

 

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

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

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


IAC-17-E1.6.2

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

Josh Richards –  Launchpad Speaking, Perth, Western Australia

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

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

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

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

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

2. Material and methods

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

2.1 “Mars Need Guitars!”

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

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

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

2.2 “Becoming Martian”

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

2.2.1 “Becoming Martian” Stage Show Tour

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

2.2.2 “Becoming Martian” Show Support Events

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

2.2.3 “Becoming Martian” Book Release

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

2.2.4 “Becoming Martian“ Book Support Events

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

2.3 “Cosmic Nomad”

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

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

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

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

2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event

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

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

2.4.2 “Moving to Mars”

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

2.4.4 The Laborastory

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

2.4.4 PlanetTalks – WOMADelaide

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

2.5 Media Engagement

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

3. Calculation

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

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

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

4. Results and Discussion

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

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

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

5. Conclusions

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

Acknowledgements

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

References

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

Space – 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 🙂

Personal – Mars One School Visit Q&A

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)

What happens if you stay on the surface of Mars longer than one hour? There’s no problem staying on the surface of Mars longer than an hour, and we’ll regularly need to go outside for a lot longer than an hour to make repairs and explore. At the moment though our spacesuits don’t provide any extra protection from the radiation on the surface of Mars, so if we went outside for more than an hour every day then we’d be exposed to too much radiation. We might go outside for 7 hours one day, but then we might stay inside for the rest of the week! It’s all about making sure you don’t go out on the surface more than an hour per day on average, because if we do we’ll increase our risk of cancer and other radiation illnesses beyond the approved limit.

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.

Hi-SEAS in Hawaii

Space – Getting To Mars Part 3: Propulsion

We kicked off my series on “Getting to Mars” last time with a look at Orbital Mechanics – showing that the physics of getting from one planet to another can be mostly explained with a stapler, a pen, and Kristen Wiig looking unimpressed. This time we’re looking at the propulsion systems that we’ll use to get to Mars.

Of course because every armchair expert has their own pet propulsion project they think is critical to the future of space exploration, this is probably the article I’ll have to delete the most hate-mail for. That’s right – I don’t even read your unsolicited and poorly-spelled bullshit before deleting it, but thank you for reading all of mine! And if you haven’t already figured it out this is also the article you’re probably going to get me at my snarkiest, because there are three phrases I hear on a fairly regular basis that genuinely get under my skin and strangely all three are connected in some way to spacecraft propulsion…

#1 “Space is hard” – The lame catch-cry of everyone that’s just watched a spacecraft disintegrate in a “rapid unscheduled disassembly“. Don’t whinge that space is “hard” – find the cause of the problem and learn from it. Space isn’t hard, it’s just unforgiving of screw-ups. Screw-ups like when someone puts in a gyroscope upside down on a US$1.3 billion rocket launch, or when someone else loses a Mars probe because it was built by the world’s biggest aerospace contractors in the only country besides Liberia & Myanmar still fighting the Metric system.

#2 “It’s not rocket science” – The sarcastic accusation that something you’re struggling with isn’t really that difficult. You know, instead of helping you, someone will suggest you’re an idiot. Here’s something for all of you unhelpful jerks: Rocket science is not difficult. Rocket science can be explained with literally ONE equation (aptly called the “Rocket Equation”) that’s not even remotely complex. Ready for it?
Where \Delta v\ is the change in the spacecraft’s velocity, v_{\text{e}} is how fast things are being shoved out the back of your spacecraft (eg. the rocket exhaust), and you multiply that by the natural logarithm (\ln ) of your spacecraft’s initial mass (m_{0}) over it’s final mass (m_{f}). You can also express the same equation in terms of specific impulse, but if it’s all feeling too complex just remember you go faster if you throw bits of your spaceship out the back really fast to make it lighter.

Rocket science is not difficult, however rocket engineering is ludicrously complex and exceptionally challenging*. So next time you decide to be an obnoxious and holier-than-thou wanker to someone trying to do something they’re struggling with, how about at least getting the terminology right?

*For why I still refuse to say rocket engineering is “hard”, see point 1 above

#3 “We need to develop better solar electric propulsion to get to Mars” – I’ll get to why you’re what’s wrong with the space industry a little later, but for now lets just say you’re a piece of shit and I can prove it mathematically.

Spacecraft propulsion can be broken down into two big categories: Thermodynamic (using heat to move gas) and Electrodynamic (using electricity/magnetism to move gas).

Thermodynamic

This category is mostly the kind of spacecraft propulsion everyone is familiar with: rockets. Absolutely no one is doubting that rockets look super cool. They’re also dangerous, wasteful, noisy, and prone to going boom because of the most tiny and obscure things… like super-chilled liquid oxygen turning solid on your carbon-fiber wrapped helium tanks.

Rockets are also ridiculously expensive and absurdly inefficient at getting things to space. The Saturn V that launched men to the Moon* weighed nearly 3 million kilos on launch, but only 5,560kg of that was left by the time the Command Module splashed down in the ocean. To put it in context, 0.185% of the original rocket’s mass came back to Earth and the other 2,964,440kg was either burnt as fuel, dumped in the ocean/space, or left on the Moon. Considering each Saturn V launch cost about US$1.16 billion in 2016 figures, that’s a whole lot of specialised and expensive stuff to be just throwing away.
* Don’t even start with me Moon Hoaxers – I will destroy you

I’d talk about how NASA’s “Space Launch System” is supposed to (eventually) be more powerful than Saturn V… buuuuuuuut since SLS & the Orion capsule are basically the worst parts of the Bush-era Constellation program that have already cost US$18 billion and are now projected to reach US$35 billion in 2025, at this point it really looks like it’s just a pork-barreling jobs program for a bundle of US Senators through the old conservative aerospace manufacturers. A jobs program which is also takes funding away from real exploration opportunities (like the underfunded Commercial Crew Program) to build a rocket that’s going anywhere. #NotEvenSorry

I currently have a bet with a fellow space geek about SLS: I’m convinced it will be cancelled before it ever flies, whereas she thinks it’ll fly once before it’s cancelled. The loser has to buy the other a ticket to Mars aboard this…

Did you see that gigantic rocket flying itself back to the launch pad to refuel and launch again? That’s SpaceX’s “Interplantary Transport System”, and once it’s up and running in the 2020’s there will be several of these taking 100 to 200 people to Mars every few years for about US$200,000 each – return trip included. They can afford to talk about sending people to Mars and back for less than the median cost of a house in the US (or 1/4 of a house in Sydney) because they’re not dumping most of their rockets into the ocean every time they launch – they’re landing them, refueling them, and launching them again. Building better rockets and not throwing most of them away after a launch means the cost of getting stuff to orbit has decreased dramatically in recent years.

We’ve never used rockets for their efficiency though – we use them because they produce a huge amount of thrust. If you have to get something from the ground into Low-Earth Orbit, it needs to push through the air with enough raw power and velocity to break free of the atmosphere and start falling around the Earth with enough velocity not to hit it again. Right now the only thing we’ve got that can push hard and fast enough to reach orbit is rockets, and no matter whatever weird propulsion system other folks might be dreaming about this is also the only way we’re going to get to Mars in the next 15-20 years*.

*Bring it on Solar Electric Propulsion people – I’ve got your number at the end of this article.

That’s not to say all rockets are the same though – we’ve got all sorts of different ways of making things go boom to get somewhere fast:

Solid Rockets – Basically really big and complex versions of the little gunpowder rocket engines you can buy at a hobby store. They’re cheap, powerful, and easy to make – perfect for launching things like cargo and probes into space.

It’s probably not a great idea to use solid rocket boosters on anything carrying people though – once you light a solid rocket you can’t stop it burning if something goes wrong… like when one on the space shuttle burned through an o-ring and into a 760,000kg tank fuel of rocket fuel, which then exploded and killed seven astronauts. But NASA is planning to use solid rocket boosters again with the crewed SLS (test fire pictured above). So, you know… YOLO.

Liquid Rockets – Pumping flammable liquids into a chamber and having them explode in a specific direction. While the Chinese were the first to get serious about solid rockets back in the 1200’s, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a guy called Robert Goddard started to set fire to liquids to push rockets around. Unfortunately the US’s scientific community and the New York Times just made fun of him for suggesting rockets could work in space.

Correction the New York Times published 3 days before Apollo 11 launched (on liquid rockets) to the Moon… and 24 years after Goddard had died.

Fortunately some people payed attention to Goddard’s research into liquid rockets. Unfortunately those people were also the Nazis, who then used that research to bomb Europe with these:

Liquid rocket engines are way more complex than solid rocket engines essentially because the fuel is sloshing around and needs to be pressurised through tanks & fuel lines for them to keep flying. Going back to my earlier “rocket science is easy, but rocket engineering is hard” – the national security restrictions imposed by each country on who can work on their rocket technology often has little to do with the rocket itself, and is almost entirely about protecting the technology behind the turbopumps that push the fuel and oxidiser at high speed & pressure into the engine bell.

Liquid rockets generally get broken down into two further categories depending on their fuel too. Bipropellants are what you see in a usual rocket launch where an oxidiser (usually liquid oxygen) and a fuel (kerosene, liquid hydrogen, methane, ect) burn to produce thrust. Monopropellant is a single liquid that ignites when it touches a catalyst, and is often used once you’re in space to turn your spacecraft around or give it a gentle push. It’s also usually made of hideously toxic, carcinogenic and explosive liquids like Hydrazine, that apparently smells like fruity-ammonia if you live long enough to tell someone.

Hybrid Rockets – A surreal mix of a solid and liquid rocket. The most obvious and well-known example of a hybrid rocket powers this:

Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two

Hybrid engines have a liquid/gas oxidiser that runs through channels in the solid fuel to burn it. They avoid the complexity of liquid rocket engines, and unlike a solid rocket you can stop them once they’re lit by cutting off the oxidiser supply. The downsides are they’re not as efficient as solid or liquid rockets, and most of them are filthy polluters. The fuel going into hybrid engine in Spaceship Two has been changed a lot, but it’s usually nitrous oxide burning rubber. So pumping soot directly into the upper atmosphere isn’t exactly fantastic for things like Global Warming…

Nuclear Propulsion – Launching tonnes of hot, radioactive material into space because it’s really good at getting you places fast… provided it doesn’t explode on the way.

Now I’m only including this because it is a form of thermodynamic propulsion, people have talked about for more than 60 years, folks like NASA & the Soviets have designed entire working systems around it… and even at it’s absolute safest it’s still fairly insane.

Nuclear rockets are outrageously powerful – even the most basic designs are twice as powerful as what’s possible with a chemical rocket. There are dozens of different (theoretical) varieties, however only two have ever been developed properly: NASA’s NERVA and the Soviet Union’s RD-0410. NASA actually had the closed-cycle NERVA XE flight ready and deemed suitable for a Mars mission in 1969, right before NASA’s funding was cut because it was clear the US was going to win the race to the Moon. Both the NASA and Soviet systems still involved using a flying nuclear reactor to super-heat hydrogen in space, however they were designed to be comparatively safe “closed cycle” systems.

I say comparatively, because you have to compare it to the other crazy shit other people were suggesting in the 1960’s. Fun things like “open cycles” designs that used weapons-grade radioactive material and deliberately spewed out clouds of radioactive exhaust.

See the bit saying “Uranium 235 T~55,000 K” leading to an open nozzle? Because fuck everyone else on the planet, right?

Then there’s the folks who designed Project Orion, who clearly felt the only thing better than using a nuclear reactor in space would be to use actual nuclear weapons. Project Orion was about literally firing a nuclear weapon behind your spaceship to propel it in the other direction: for anyone who’s ever played Quake or Team Fortress 2 this is basically a rocket-jump but with a nuke.

We’re not talking about just one nuke either: the idea was to have one going off every second, and some of the interstellar designs called for a spacecraft 20km long that carried 300,000,000 1-Megaton nuclear weapons, or “pulse units” as they were so eloquently renamed. Strangely enough Project Orion pretty much ended when most of the world signed the “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water” (aka the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) in 1963.

The fever dreams of Dr Strangelove

Chances are we’ll need some sort of nuclear propulsion in the future to take humans beyond Mars though. Jupiter barely gets 4% of the sunlight the Earth does, so the diminishing light from the Sun makes solar power a lot less viable. It’d also be a great way to reduce the nuclear stockpiles we have, and there’s even some semi-reasonable arguments for taking small nuclear power plants to provide electricity to a colony on Mars – the big issues are obviously what do you do with the waste and what if something breaks?

Nuclear propulsion isn’t completely insane… but do we need to take the risk, when we can get to Mars just fine using conventional chemical rockets? No. 

Do you know what else we don’t need to get to Mars? Solar Bullshit Electric Fucking Propulsion.

Electrodynamic

Maybe you’ve heard on the news about some crazy space propulsion system that uses lasers, ions, or something else that sounds really complex and weird. Chances are it’s either a solar sail (which are slow but cool in their own “Star-Surfing with Sagan” kind of way) or you’ve heard about some variant of an ion drive (which are also slow but cool in their own “Star Trekking with William Shatner” kind of way too).

Ion drives are not some far flung science-fiction fantasy though: Harold Kaufmann built the first ion thruster in 1959, the Russians launched their own variant (known as a Hall Effect Thruster) on a satellite in 1971, and almost all modern communication satellites use some form of ion drive for “station-keeping” – correcting for variations in Earth’s gravity to maintain a highly precise “geo-stationary” orbit.

Essentially ion drives use electric fields to accelerate a gas (usually Xenon) out an exhaust at incredibly high velocities to produce a tiny thrust. The high exit velocity (aka “Specific Impulse”) means ion drives are insanely efficient and capable of reaching much higher maximum velocities than any rocket ever could, and there’s been some really exciting improvements… but because ion drives only throw out only a tiny bit of gas (eg. roughly the same amount of force you feel blowing on the back of your hand) they’re also incredibly slow to accelerate up to those high velocities.

How slow? NASA’s Dawn mission has three Xenon ion thrusters capable of 90mN of thrust (about the same force as the weight of a postage stamp) that can accelerate the probe from 0 to 100km/hr over four days.

Ion drives absolutely have their place, but no matter what bullshit spin some of the old aerospace players might try to pull that place is not getting people to Mars. Ion drives are improving, but unless VASIMR unexpectedly gets a demo flight and proves it actually works electrodynamic propulsion simply won’t be powerful enough to shorten the trip to Mars for humans any time in the next few decades. Especially if you’re only using solar power.

Improved ion drives that run on solar power will be really useful however for… getting communication satellites from Low-Earth Orbit into a Geo-stationary orbit.

Here’s a fun fact: the global satellite communication industry generates over US$200 billion in revenue each year, and makes up nearly 2/3’s of the entire space industry. Reaching Low-Earth Orbit (160km to 2000km altitude) with a rocket is relatively simple, however getting to Geo-stationary orbit (~36,000km and where almost all large communication satellites need to be placed) is much harder, requires far greater velocities, and usually needs an additional stage on the rocket. This extra velocity and additional staging brings greater risks of things going wrong, so naturally launching something to such a high orbit is also a lot more expensive.

So if telecommunication companies can launch new satellites to a much cheaper Low-Earth Orbit and then use solar powered ion drives (aka “Solar Electric Propulsion” aka “The bane of my existence”) to slowly shift new satellites up to geo-synchronous orbit over several months, they’ll save literally billions in launch costs alone.

Are you bored by this yet?  

No shit – the satellite communication industry is boring, but it’s also really big money. Do you know what is not boring, but also means risking lives for something that won’t make anywhere near as much money? SENDING PEOPLE TO MARS.

Which is why there’s a huge amount of money and research going into solar electric propulsion at the moment, and why I roll my eyes obnoxiously at everyone who tells me it’ll “help with NASA’s #JourneyToMars”. Because they either don’t understand how weak solar electric propulsion currently is, or they’re trying to bullshit me and others into believing a technology being developed to reduce the cost of deploying communication satellites around Earth will somehow get me to Mars.

I’m happy to be proven wrong on all of this, and I’m certain in the far future we’ll use ion drives to zip between Earth and Mars. I’m even sure some of them will even use solar power. They’ve been trying since 1971, but maybe Ad Astra will finally get somewhere with VASIMR afterall. Maybe the EM Drive will be completely validated and change everything. But don’t tell me we to need to pour billions more into solar electric propulsion research to get to Mars – chemical rockets have been getting things there just fine for decades.

In the meantime, Mars One was founded with the express purpose of permanently colonising Mars, and SpaceX was founded with the express purpose of establishing a sustained human presence on Mars too. Do you see either of them talking about needing further research into solar electric propulsion?
No? Just using conventional liquid rockets you say?

Funny that…

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Space – Getting To Mars [Part 2: Orbital Mechanics] or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Gravity

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 leave faster. Sounds simple, but this gets ridiculously complicated really quickly. The three things to remember though are the more you accelerate:

  1. The straighter you’ll travel and faster you’ll get there (which is awesome)
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

Orbital Slingshots AKA “Gravity Assists” AKA “Big Thing Make Spaceship Go Fast”

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

Ballistic Capture

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…

Me during the last 10 mins of The Martian

So there you have it: orbital mechanics that’s awesome and not lame/boring. Obviously there is so much math to dig into if that’s what gets you off, and I’m not one to kink-shame: go and get wild solving three-body problems or dig out on the crazy equations describing Lagrange points, gravitational keyholes, Halo orbits, Lissajous orbits and Horseshoe orbits, or Hill spheres… if that’s your thing.

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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.