Could this be the first man on Mars? Photo Credit: Josh Richards

Getting to Mars: Updated interview with Josh Richards

You have the chance to be one of the first people to live on Mars. You’re name goes down in history as one the greatest, most fearless explorers, you have the chance to make some of our species’ greatest discoveries, and you take the first steps in advancing humans towards being an interplanetary society. The catch? You’ll live the rest of your life doing the tedious chores to maintain your life support systems and never return to Earth to see your family and friends ever again.

Still interested? Josh Richards still is. Richards is finalist to be sent on initial mission of Mars One, an organization committed to sending humans to Mars to start a permanent settlement. After nearly three years since naming the final 100 candidates, Mars One has seemed to have found its financial footing, and looks to move forward with their project of sending the first humans to the Red Planet.

I caught up with Richards about two years after our first interview. Since then, he has been using his time to promote the cause of interplanetary exploration. Passionate, and willing to put his mind and his body to the test, Richards remains hopeful that he can do his part to help advance scientific discovery.

CA: It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

JR: It has! It’s been quite a while.

CA: So, you’re in a program that is planning on sending you to Mars. Forever. How’s that going?

JR: It’s been a weird process. I got shortlisted in February 2015, so over two and a half years ago now. Mars One has gone through a funding bottleneck; they needed money to promote things and raise more money. They were listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange, but their shares were frozen because they needed a better business plan. However, it was the best thing for them because it really kicked them into gear to start taking the business side more seriously and it looks like they have passed the bottleneck in the last week.  

CA: Have you been doing any training or team building over the last two and half years to prepare for this journey while the business side gets worked out?

JR: Each candidate does their own thing to prepare. I’m not an employee of Mars One and they don’t pay me, we’re all basically in an extended job interview, so they aren’t training us yet.

What’s probably going to happen is that mid-2018 they will get all the candidates together in Wadi Rum, the same place where they filmed The Martian, to see how we work together in teams and basically test the hell out of us for a week. Not try and break us, but see who cracks.

From there they will have about 40 people to go off on an expedition, similar to the way NASA’s Hi-SEAS (NASA’s Mars simulation in Hawai’i) tests people before they start an 8 month simulation mission. They basically send people camping for two weeks with little to no direction to see who is a pain to work with and who doesn’t handle not knowing what is happening. It’s the same thing many candidates for special forces have to go through: tell the candidates they have to get to a certain place, but nothing on how to get there or what they will do once they are there. They won’t tell you if you are doing okay or where you could improve. Zero feedback. You just have to keep pushing and keep motivating yourself.

That will reduce the group to 12-24 which will be full-time employees of Mars One on one-year contracts, which means you will have to fight for your job each year to stay with the program.

CA: That’s exciting!

JR: It is! They are aiming to reopen the application process around December so new people will be able to apply for MarsTwo, which is a good sign that we are moving forward.

Could you live on Mars for the rest of your life? Photo Credit: NASA

CA: Is there anything about the training that you are excited or nervous for?

JR: I’m excited to see if I am up to the challenge, but I am also nervous about that at the same time. I think it’s just about the experience. It’ll be a lot more boring than people expect it to be.

I served with the British Commandos for about year and a lot of guys expected it to be swinging on ropes, shooting guns, and climbing around with a knife in your teeth and a lot of it is really dull stuff like learning to iron or polish brass.

CA: Doesn’t that speak to living in a small spacecraft for several months on end? Because it’s not Star Wars. It’s not exciting, it’s the same view for months at a time.  

JR: Going to the Antarctica is a pretty good analogy to what we will be doing. And once we get to Mars, we are going to be living underground in little mole people homes. It’s not like you can move the furniture around or splash on a new coat of paint. It’s going to be quite boring. It’s not adventure, it’s maintenance. We’ll be doing it in a wild environment, but it’s going to be incredibly tedious.

An artist’s rendering of a potential home for potential Mars colonists, such as Josh Richards. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CA: Your background is engineering. What do you think is going to be the biggest challenges getting you and three other people safely to Mars.

JR: One is the landing systems. The biggest thing we’ve ever landed on Mars is the Curiosity Rover, and that was one ton. The life support system for Mars One is about 7.4 tons. Any of the return vehicles that NASA has designed are going to weigh between 30 and 40 tons. So that’s a big barrier for returning astronauts back to Earth.

CA: Is that because of the air resistance is so much less there?

JR: Yeah. You can use heat shields to slow yourself down, but you will still be going at supersonic speeds because there is such little atmosphere. And you can’t use parachutes because they shred. NASA has been trying to use parachutes on Mars for the last 30 years and they eventually gave up with Curiosity and went to with retro rockets. But that is tricky because you’ll be firing the rockets right into the jet stream, so trying to realign a spacecraft to land safely is very difficult.

Landing NASA’s Curiosity Rover was big engineering challenge, but landing a manned ship will be even more difficult. Photo Credit: NASA

The other issue is the life support systems. The life support system on the International Space Station is designed to be reliable for about 6 months. The expectation is that you are getting a resupply every 3 months. If the orbits of Earth and Mars align every 26 months, those life support systems need to be an order of magnitude more reliable.

Everything on the space station was designed to be light to fit on the space shuttle. Everything Mars One is designing is heavier and not as efficient, things that make aerospace engineers want to throw up, but it’s reliable. When space exploration first started, they took the most advanced Air Force test pilots and they became the first astronauts. We almost need more of an Army mentality; that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have been the most refined thing, it just has to do the bloody job, rather than engineering the perfect solution. The systems have to be almost army-proof, tougher.

CA: Let’s say you get to Mars. What is something that you are excited to learn or study or discover is one of the first humans on another planet?

JR: I think the big one for me is the human element. Contrary to what you may hear, we have a fairly good idea of what happens to humans psychologically when they are isolated and stressful environments. Antarctica, nuclear submarines, caving, all that sort of stuff. What we don’t have information on is what our bodies are going to do long-term in 38% of Earth’s gravity.

If you can imagine data points on a graph, we know how our bodies work with 1 G of gravity and we know how our bodies start to break down and get softer and weaker in microgravity. But Mars in a third of the way on that line. We don’t know if it’s a straight line or if it drops off suddenly. If we lose a little bit of gravity, do our bodies start to disintegrate? That’s the really exciting thing for me because it’s going to define how we will explore the rest of the Solar System.

Scott Kelly spent a year in space. How will living in the lower gravity environment on Mars affect the human body? Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CA: This sounds like a giant experiment on yourself.

JR: We’re the guinea pigs. If we just kept sending rovers, it would be a lot cheaper, but progress would be a lot slower and it wouldn’t be as inspiring. There are some things that rovers just can’t do.

If anything more than a slight drop in gravity causes our bodies to start breaking down, that means any crewed spacecraft that goes to Jupiter or Saturn would have to be huge and it will be hundreds, if not thousands of years before we start venturing that far out. If living in a 5% gravity environment is enough to stop most issues we have in microgravity such as bone loss, then the Solar System is ours.

CA: One of the questions that go back and forth in my head is that if climate change has potentially serious consequences for both our planet and our species, should we be focusing on making sure the Earth is habitable and sustainable before we wreck another planet?

JR: There’s an awesome quote from Einstein that I will mangle. Basically, you can’t solve a problem from the same perspective that created it. There’s an attitude that we are spending money on space exploration that could be spent on climate change or hospitals or feeding the poor. It shouldn’t be an “either”, it should be an “and”.

Part of the reason that we are aware of global warming in the first place is that we studied the atmosphere of Venus in the 1950’s and early 60’s with Carl Sagan’s work. I don’t like using the spin-off excuse, that by going to other planets, we will develop technology that will make life better on Earth. We’ll do that. But if we not exploring other planets, what the point of being here on Earth in the first place?  

It’s a funny argument, especially when you consider the US spends around half a trillion dollars on its military every year and then people want to attack NASA’s $18 billion dollar budget. It’s skew of priorities. In Australia, we still don’t have a space agency. We announced a few weeks ago that we are going to have one, but we don’t have one. But we spend something on the order of $35 billion a year on the military. When I was in the Army we’d joke that if anyone was to invade the northern half of Australia we could just let them “have it” – It’s mostly crocodiles and sharks and desert! So it’s a strange attitude to have that spending money on exploring space is a “waste”.

NASA’s budget has shrank dramatically since the end of the Apollo program, causing directors to have to make tough decisions on which missions to fund. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CA: How are you feeling about your chances of being of the four astronauts on Mars One?

JR: I always say if there are 100 of us (finalists), and they are sending four of us, then my odds are 1 in 25. I am always doing the best candidate that I can be. Long-term, you can’t pretend to be anything you aren’t. If they don’t choose me, then I’ll do something else to find a way to Mars. I am going to Mars one way or another.

I’ve always said to folks there’s no way I am going to be the first human on Mars. Why we would we have another cis, white male be the first when half the passengers on Mars ONE will be women? I might be the third person on Mars, and that will be great. No one remembers what Pete Conrad said when he stepped foot on the Moon because he was the third person there. I can say whatever the hell I want. 

My big thing is that I care about the idea of going to Mars. And the best way I can advocate going to Mars is to put my hand up and say “yes, I’d go” and this is why it’s important. It doesn’t matter if I go or not, but the longer I am in the program, the longer I can advocate for that idea.

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