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JOSH RICHARDS Life on Mars?


How does it feel knowing that your days on earth are numbered? What could compel someone to leave the familiarity of their home planet and venture out into the cosmos to take part in the project to colonise Mars, knowing you will never return? For most of us it’s something we can barely comprehend, let alone consider doing, but Perth-born Josh Richards is not your typical kind of guy. He has always been driven by a deep sense of adventure that has seen him picking up booby traps for the Australian Army, getting slogged through mud with British Commandos, using napalm in a music video for U2, and working as a science advisor to the richest contemporary artist in the world. He’s heading to Joondalup Festival with two shows including an adults only show on Saturday, April 6 and a family friendly show on Sunday, April 7. When BRAYDEN EDWARDS got in touch with Richards he was just about to go cave diving in Mount Gambier, South Australia and took some rare time off his hectic schedule to answer some questions about his fascinating journey and where it might take him next.

So you’ve been shortlisted as one of the people to be sent to colonise Mars, how did you find out and did you feel differently about the prospect once you knew there was a fair chance it could become a reality?

In the end it was simply an email saying “Congratulations!” It had been nearly two years since I first applied to Mars One along with 202,585 other folks, a year since 1058 of us had been initially shortlisted, and several months since 660 of us had passed the medical exam and undergone a psych assessment from Mars One’s chief medical selector. 100 of us got that email with “Congratulations” in the first sentence, but we were all still under a media embargo for another  three days! So while I found out on a Friday that I’d been selected as one of the 100 candidates, I had to wait until after the weekend to tell anyone about it – although anyone around me that weekend knew what had happened even if I wasn’t saying it out loud!

For me this mission has always been more than a reality – it’s an inevitability. We could have been sending people to explore the solar system for decades now, but no one has dedicated the energy and resources to go more than 680km above the Earth since 1972 when Apollo 17 returned from the Moon. Yet here is an organisation dedicated solely to establishing a permanent human presence on Mars – to the goal of making our species a dual-planet one. So being shortlisted for Mars One didn’t change how I feel about the prospect of humans living on another planet, but I was certainly relieved that I’d be able to keep playing a role in helping make it happen.

And what did you friends and family think about putting your hand up for selection?

I’ve always wanted to be involved in unusual and adventurous things that serve some purpose that’s bigger than I am, so when I told most of my friends I’d signed up for a one-way mission to Mars they just laughed and shook their heads saying “of course you did!” Mum was initially horrified and Dad was understandably concerned, but they’ve both seen the sense of purpose this project has given me, especially visiting schools to talk to kids about space exploration, and they’re determined to make the most of each day I’m still here. When I told my sister she called me an idiot, but that’s got nothing to do with going to Mars.

And what kind of skills and experience are required to be an astronaut these days? I imagine there must be a whole mix given you can’t just call up a specialist on Earth when you’re out in space?

The old “Right Stuff” from the 60s is really the very wrong stuff these days. Selecting seven white dudes from the same sub-section of the military, like test-pilots, with the same education level, same IQ, and even the same height might have worked for the US Mercury program when they were only sending one of them up at a time to fly around for a few hours and then come back, but A-type fighter jet personalities really don’t suit trips to space any longer than about two weeks.

So rather than steely-eyed missile men, the first Mars One crew really needed to be four McGuyvers who are awesome housemates. You’re going to be on a freezing planet with a whispy-thin atmosphere, living in something akin to a plush submarine, and no one else is going to turn up with spare parts for at least two years. So while it’s critical to train in things like medicine, life support maintenance, firefighting, and greenhouse management, it’s actually more important to select people who don’t leave the toilet seat up or dump their dishes in the sink for someone else to deal with. You can train people to repair an atmospheric processor – but it’s a lot harder to teach them not to be a jerk.

You’ve got a bit of a colourful resume, what have been some of the craziest things you’ve found yourself getting up to in your career to date?

Picking up booby traps with the Army or slogging through snow in a -22 degree blizzard with the Royal Marine Commandos didn’t seem crazy at the time, but looking back I realise how mental some of it all was. I can’t say I recommend any of it though, and especially not being teargassed. Learning to breed butterflies for an art exhibit at London’s Tate Modern for one of the world’s most famous artists was definitely surreal, but probably not as crazy as some of the stuff I did as a full-time comedian – dressing up as a screaming, ukulele-playing koala and performing alongside Rove and Wil Anderson in Los Angeles is still a bit of a career highlight.

You also once used napalm in a video clip for U2, what was that like?

Truth be told the napalm didn’t give the effect we were looking for on screen – way too much black soot and yellow flames rather than blue – so for the final product I switched over to a different accelerant that gave us the look we were trying to achieve. But it was definitely entertaining teaching a bunch of art-college graduates how to make napalm and then testing it on a bunch of old artwork!

What are some of the most surprising things about space or being in space that most people don’t realise?

Everyone thinks that you need to be both perfect and lucky to be an astronaut, and it’s simply not the case. There’s a lot of mythmaking that goes on around astronauts generally, but especially around NASA astronauts, and that “All-American” hero image is actually quite toxic – it ‘denies’ the fact that space exploration is a human endeavour, and something that we should all be able to contribute to regardless of what random patch of dirt we happened to be born on. The most surprising thing is that the best years are yet to come – we’re living through a point in history that will be seen as the true golden age of space exploration, where we start to transcend national borders and explore space as a species.

If you do make it onto the Mars trip, how long will it take to get there and will at least have a road trip playlist for the journey?

If we leave during the 2031 launch window it’ll take about 210 days to get to Mars, and drifting through the darkness of space is going to suck if it’s just Bowie’s “Best Of” on repeat. I’m already getting plenty of practice making playlists for all the flying I do, but for a seven months trip I suspect I’ll have to sneak my ukulele onboard to torment the crew with once we’re passed the point of no return.

What will you look forward to most if you get there?

The first few years are purely about survival, so we’ll be spending most of our time indoors just keeping the life-support running and the the greenhouse growing until more crews arrive. Living underground like a mole-person on a planet with half the incident sunlight as Earth and never being closer than 56 million kilometers from the rest of humanity is actually quite appealing to a ginger misanthrope, especially since I started writing books – it’s basically the ultimate writer’s retreat, except you can’t “step outside for some air” when you need a break. Once further crews arrive and we have enough support to venture further from the habitat though I’m hoping we’ll use tele-operated rovers to explore the canyons and caves of Mars – it’d be pretty cool to be driving the bot that first discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars.

And what do you have in store for us at the Joondalup Festival, what can we look forward to experiencing when you land at your shows there?

My adults-only show on Saturday, April 6 is an uncomfortably personal look at how signing up for a one-way mission to Mars has already radically changed my life on here on Earth, and delves into everything from zero-g bondage to extinction level events – it’s my all-time favourite show to perform and it’ll probably make your mum blush. It’s not fair to do anything related to space and then tell kids they can’t see it though, so I’m also doing my family-friendly show on Sunday, April 7 that parents will be able to bring their kids to without needing to explain what Tinder is afterwards.

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