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The new space race

How Josh Richards is escaping extinction with life on Mars

Necessary or nonsense? The Mars One candidate tells us why he’s dedicating his life to making Mars a liveable place.

Sophie Mackenzie
Sydney Opera House

In 1971 David Bowie released ‘Life on Mars’, a four-minute ‘mini-opera’ that follows a girl whose parents go to the movies to escape her problems. In building to its climatic challenge of ‘reality,’ the song makes clever reference to Orson Welles’ fictionalised radio broadcast, warning of a ‘War of the Worlds’ that spreads panic as the public braces for an alien invasion. Slowly, the story of the girl with the ‘mousy hair’ becomes irrelevant. ‘Life on Mars’ is a song about our obsession with the obscene.

There’s no denying that David Bowie was ahead of his time – that was his art. But today, the concept of life on Mars is not that far from fiction. With astronomical developments in space technology, humans will begin to inhabit Mars by 2030 – unless someone beats NASA to it. The latest contender to enter as a commercial competitor is SpaceX, a vision of entrepreneur Elon Musk. Blue Origin, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, Inspiration Mars, China National Space Administration and Mars One are all in the running too. The novelty of having your footprints set in lunar dust has passed – sending life to Mars is the new space race.

Joining the race is Australian physicist, engineer, ex-soldier and comedian Josh Richards. He’s one of a hundred Round 3 Candidates for Mars One – an independent, not-for-profit organisation that wants to establish the first human settlement on Mars by 2032. As one of the first humans to set foot on the red planet, Josh would be dedicating the rest of his life to ensure life on Mars can one day flourish. We talked to him about being alone, space politics, and who has a headstart in the global space race.


Astronaut in suit

“It’s an interesting idea that we have the power to destroy Earth – no, we just have the power to destroy ourselves.”

Sophie Mackenzie: How close are you to being one of the four people who colonise and live on Mars for the Mars One mission?
Josh Richards: There are currently one hundred of us who were selected from a candidate pool of over 200,000.  From the one hundred, eighteen to thirty-six will be selected early next year and become full time employees of Mars One, where we’ll train for the next 14 years until the final four are chosen.

SM: What will happen in your 14 years of training?
JR: We’ll be bouncing all around the planet to wherever the equipment is being manufactured or training is best. We’ll also learn the basics – like dentistry as we won't visit a dentist again or using a toilet in micro-gravity. They have this special room in the Johnson Space Centre in Texas where there’s a camera that live-streams to a TV screen nearby so you can learn to line yourself up to go to the bathroom properly. It's the life support systems, waste processing systems and toilets that are arguably the most complex pieces of equipment on a spacecraft.

SM: Have you seen The Martian?
JR: When The Martian came out there was a lot of discussion about Mars One. The self-sufficiency aspect of The Martian is exactly what they'd want to reach in thirty or forty years. But apart from that the two don't really gel - Mark Watney’s entire screenplay is him trying to get back to Earth, whereas we are designing systems with the intention to stay.

SM: What do you imagine daily life will be like as an inhabitant of Mars? Will it be lonely and boring?
JR:  I’m not expecting to get lonely – I love the idea of being a long, long way from humans for a very long time. Boredom is a very high risk as our day-to-day life will be exploring how our bodies react to this foreign environment. We’re human guinea pigs, and Mars is the first step to seeing how human bodies adjust to different gravity components. It could be the deciding factor on whether we colonise further into space, what technology we develop and how or if we need to 'create' gravity. We’re establishing a foothold and that always has the highest mortality rate. Like a military scenario, you have to hold the territory, survive, and wait for more people to arrive behind you. And the best way for me to advocate that people should be living on Mars is for me to put my hand up and say, ‘I’ll go. Who wants to come with me?’

SM: Why is it so important to colonise another planet?
JR: Every single life form on this planet has survived because it has evolved, because it has taken risks. Colonising Mars is hugely risky on an individual basis, but from a species’ perspective it is essential. What happens to us when we experience what happened to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? An event like this could wipe out the vast majority of humanity – and if we haven’t evolved to the point of colonising other planets then it could be the end of our species. We’re cosmic nomads – we should go somewhere, discover more about the universe and then move on to somewhere else.

SM: Do you think we can make a mess of one planet and keep colonising others?
JR: I hate the idea of messing up any planet. Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years, and a species that has been around for 3.5 million years isn’t going to ruin it. A catastrophic event may wipe out an entire species, but life will come back to Earth, like it did after the dinosaurs and four other times before that. It’s an interesting idea that we have the power to destroy Earth–no, we just have the power to destroy ourselves.

Life on Mars astronaut
Play media

Would you take a one-way trip to Mars?

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SM: Do you believe colonising and terraforming other planets, including Mars, runs the risk of someone claiming 'ownership' over them?
JR: No, there are United Nations treaties against that. We had the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, signed by 89 different countries who committed not to putting nuclear weapons in orbit or anywhere else in space. No-one could claim anything in space as belonging to a country. In the past few years there’s been discussion that America will change its laws and start mining asteroids. The US might have done that and passed bits in Congress to enable some companies to do that, but none of that has been tested – although it is ‘soft law,’ it will go through absolute hell in the International Courts before anyone lets it happen.

SM: Who do you think will win the new space race?
JR: I don’t think there will be winners – we’re in a totally different environment to the sixties when the race to the moon was happening. Competition drives people to do better. But collaboration is better – like SpaceX and Mars One or NASA partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA) or the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Nationalism must go out the window – it shouldn’t matter which patch of dirt you were born on when you’re talking about moving to another planet.

SM: How are you preparing yourself now to leave Earth?
JR: Since I became a candidate for Mars One I’ve stopped making promises to people and started fulfilling the ones I have made. Right now I am in Calgary because 8 years ago I made a promise to a girl I'd teach her to swim. On my last day, I’d be looking forward to what’s next – I wouldn’t have any ties or connections left.

SM: Are you allowed to take any creature comforts with you to Mars?
JR: I’m just planning to take my ukulele. We'd have a limit of about one kilo.

SM: And the obvious closer ... what would be your last meal on Earth?
JR: Ah, the old last meal. For me, it'd be a pulled pork and avocado burrito from a place called Brother's Burritos on Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles. That'd be my last meal on Earth.

Join a panel of experts for Life on Mars: The 2020 Rover Mission on Thursday 17 August at the Sydney Opera House. The discussion will be led by the UNSW Big Questions Institute featuring Graham Phillips, formerly of ABC’s Catalyst, Australian geologist and astrobiologist Dr. Abigail Allwood, physicist Professor and author Paul Davies, UNSW Professor Martin Van Kranendonk and NASA Mars 2020 Rover Mission program scientist Dr. Mitch Schulte.

David Bowie

David Bowie - Life on Mars?

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