In October 2014 I was at the National Young Writer’s Festival in Newcastle, standing awkwardly by the snacks at the opening Meet and Greet event and trying to decide who looked friendly enough to fulfill the “Meet” component of this little soiree. By blocking the corn chips just long enough I accidentally made eye-contact with someone after a nacho cheese fix, introduced myself, then asked what she was doing at the festival: “I’m a poet. I’m running two workshops and doing a late night reading. What about you?” I told her, to which she replied “You’re not an astronaut – that is THE WORST pickup line I’ve ever heard”, then stalked off with corn chip dust all over her fingers and nose.
Sorry, I should probably introduce myself to you too. Hi! My name is Josh: I’m a 31-year-old physicist and comedian. I served as an explosives specialist with the Australian Army and British Royal Marine Commandos, then left the military to work in the UK as a stand-up comic and radio presenter. In 2012 I was writing a comedy show about sending people one-way to Mars when I discovered an international organisation planning to actually do it. So now I’m one of 100 people short-listed from over 200,000 applications worldwide to become the first colonists on Mars in 2031 and never come back. Right now though that mostly means I perform science comedy and speak in schools about how I’m willing to go to Mars one-way because it will change who we are as a species.
It also means I write articles about space exploration, and I’m currently editing my book on how becoming a dual planet species will change us in body, mind and soul. Which is why I was at a writers’ festival. It’s also why I was standing next to the Doritos, feeling out of place.
Most of the time I don’t immediately tell people I’m an astronaut candidate – ‘comedian’ is far less threatening. One-way missions to Mars are great for hooking people’s attention when you’re performing or writing, but it tends to shut down casual conversation pretty quickly. It always depends on who you’re speaking to though: when you’re at a writers’ festival to talk about colonising Mars ‘astronaut candidate’ is what you lead with. When you’re explaining to Peter Hellier what a Hohmann transfer is by comparing Courtney Love to a black hole, you’re a ‘comedian’ and ‘maniac’. And when you’re visiting a primary school because a science teacher saw you on TV talking to Hellier, you become a ‘science communicator’ who uses a merry-go-round metaphor to explain orbital mechanics, instead of Courtney Love.
Every time I visit a school though, some kid is guaranteed to ask me how you shit in space. EVERY. TIME. Of course they don’t say it that way, it’s “How do you go to the toilet in space?” But a quick Google image search – which I know they’ve already done – proves there’s a variety of zero-g hose systems for both male and female astronauts to urinate into. So what these kids are really asking is “How do you shit in space?” In the 60s the Apollo astronauts crapped into plastic bags then kneaded the bag (by hand) to work a bacteria-eating powder through it, because if they didn’t knead it properly the bag would fill with gas and explode. The space shuttle actually had something to sit on, but since things don’t flush in zero-g, the ‘toilet’ was basically a seat over a blender that used air-jets to push solid waste downwards. Yes, it would break. Yes, turds would escape the bowl and float around the spaceship.
How could you NOT tell kids this though? Kids ask because they don’t know, because how we shit is something kids (and a lot of adults) laugh about, and they want to hear stories about it. Space toilets are insanely complicated pieces of engineering, but kids don’t care – they want a story about shitting in space. Adults want to know too but are usually too polite to ask, so I’ve written a book they can read on the train and look intelligent reading because it has Mars on the cover. It sounds cheap, but if it takes toilet humour to explain a complex topic like space science, then I’m happy to share stories about exploding turd bags with people of any age.
The brilliant yet terrifying thing about public speaking and live comedy is immediately sensing if the audience is interested or amused, so you learn to adapt your performance and material as you perform it. Stand-up was how I learnt to turn things that interest me into things that are funny. At its core the challenge with writing is no different though: work out who your audience is, what they want and are familiar with, then connect your topic to that and make the audience feel something. Laughter, anger, disgust – whatever. Writing also gives you the luxury of time to twist yourself up over every syllable, in exchange for unloving silence when you write a great joke.
By the way, I genuinely wasn’t trying to pick up Dorito-fingers at the writers festival, but I DID describe our awkward exchange an hour later as I was chatting up someone I was actually interested in. Because if I’m going to leave Earth for good in 2031 then there’s no way I’m missing the chance to use “I’m a candidate for the first human mission to Mars” to get geek girls interested, make people of all ages people learn and laugh, and at least try to get laid occasionally.
Hopefully everyone will believe me when I say I’m just doing it for the species.