Sci-Tech

From a glass box to the Red Planet: The strange journey of a Martian-in-training

Physicist and comedian Josh Richards is ready and willing to die on Mars. But first he has to survive a see-through, mocked-up habitat in Sydney, Australia.

Giles Keyte

Josh Richards outside the "Mars hab".

Mark Metcalfe/Frank PR

He's been a soldier, an explosives engineer and a physicist, and he's currently a stand-up comedian. But Australian Josh Richards has spent the last few years working toward his next major role: Mars colonist.

Richards discovered the Mars One project in 2012 and was hooked. Mars One, run by a nonprofit foundation, aims to develop and fund a mission to put people on the Red Planet by 2026. Joining the other 202,000 applicants, the 29-year-old now finds himself one of seven Aussies in the final list of 100 people prepared to travel the minimum 225 million miles just to die on an alien world.

"I didn't grow up dreaming of Mars," he says. "I mean, as a 7-year-old, I saw Andy Thomas selected as Australia's first astronaut and thought 'I want to do that', but then I put that dream on hold for 20-odd years."

Sadly, without US citizenship, Richards had few options when it came to slipping the surly bonds of Earth, until Mars One rolled around.

"It's an international mission," he says. "They don't care what patch of dirt you were born on. They just want to get us to Mars."

While the initial concept of a Mars One reality TV show may be over (although there's a documentary still planned) Richards is at least adhering to the spirit of the original idea. He's currently spending five days and nights in a custom-built glass "Mars habitat" in the heart of Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia. (If you're wondering why this is even happening, it's a tie-in with the February 10 DVD and Blu-ray release of Ridley Scott's "The Martian". You know, the winner of best comedy or musical at this year's Golden Globes.)

From Monday, February 8, to Friday afternoon, Richards will be required to perform a variety of random and unexpected tasks while people watch either at the habitat itself or online around the world. I was initially under the impression that the "hab" would be a two-way mirror, allowing the rubbernecking crowds to look in, while affording the Martian hopeful at least the illusion of privacy. Apparently I wasn't the one who ended up completely mistaken.

"I was informed on Thursday that it's actually completely clear glass, so I'll be able to see everyone looking at me," Richards deadpans. "Luckily I understand that if people are tapping on the glass they'll shoo them away for me.

"That said, I've been working as teaching associate for the International Space University's Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program at the University of South Australia, so I think that not having to wake up and deal with student will make this feel like a day spa...just a day spa where I'm being filmed 24 hours a day."

martian-josh-richard.jpg

Richards says that, like Mark Watney from "The Martian", he'll be making regular video diaries.

Giles Keyte

While he doesn't yet know exactly what he'll be doing in the hab, Richards did help the designers set up the challenges he'll face.

"I've worked with them for the past four or five months, talking about the genuine challenges people face on, say, the space station," he says. "I'm trying to make it as real world as possible. But even after all that, they've deliberately kept me in the dark to make it as interesting as possible -- for me and the audience."

Hang on: "real world"? Surely the pseudo-Mars hab might be a bit of fun, but it can't even vaguely compare to training for the Mars One expedition? There can't be a future moment in 2027 when something will go wrong on Mars, and Richards will be able to say: 'Wait! Eleven years ago I was in a glass box in Sydney and something like this happened. I've got this!'

"Believe it or not, most of Mars One training will be this sort of stuff," he says. "They'll be building mock Mars habitats, sticking us in in groups of four and seeing how we solve problems.

"The big difference is they won't be telling us when we can leave. Even the guys at Hi-Seas (a NASA testing habitat) are doing a 12-month stint at the moment. They know the timing -- we won't be told when the doors crack open, which will make for some interest research psychologically."

Interestingly, Richards says it's the commercial and civilian nature of the Mars One mission that makes it more likely to succeed at getting human habitation established on a new planet than a government venture.

"The course director of the ISU classes I've been working on is John Connelly from NASA, who's also been planning the human mission to Mars for those guys," Richards says. "John and I have spoken a few times about how NASA couldn't do a mission like Mars One, because it has to bring its astronauts home -- only a civilian organization could do what we're doing and send people to another planet permanently."

josh-richard-hab-bed.jpg
Mark Metcalfe/Frank PR

There's still a long road before the Mars One crew even take that first step on the way to colonizing our second-closest planetary neighbor. The current plan has remote vehicles being sent over in 2020 and 2022 to pick landing sites. Cargo payloads will be 2024, carrying life-support and habitats and then, finally, the first four astronauts will be sent in 2026, with more groups of four following regularly.

That doesn't mean Richards and the rest of the crew get to put their feet up for the next few years. In September, the fourth selection process will begin.

"We'll all gather somewhere in the world -- best guess is either Iceland or Dubai," he says. "They'll get us into groups and start testing us, see how we work together. Around half of us will probably get filtered out in the first four or five days, then the remaining half will go around 10 days of group testing in isolation.

"From there, they pick the final 24 and those guys become full-time employees. Before any of that happens though, I'm taking my comedy show Cosmic Nomad, which is all about signing up for Mars One, around Australia."

But why even want to go Mars in the first place?

"We just need to explore. There's a raft of logical reasons, sure, but we as humans seem to have this innate need to get out there and see what's beyond the cave. But personally, I guess what I really want is in 20 or 30 years time, for some 7-year-old kids to look up at the night and know that there are people living out there and that they can go, too, if they want to."