Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I still remember being absolutely gobsmacked while watching space shuttle launches, and listening as the 6pm news announced that Dr Andy Thomas had been accepted into NASA's 1992 Astronaut group. I knew right then what I was supposed to do.
But like a lot of kids, I had it drummed into me that the chances of becoming an astronaut were slim to none. As an AUSTRALIAN kid, I was told it was basically impossible -- the only way Andy Thomas got to join NASA was to become an American citizen and THEN apply to be an astronaut.
"Be reasonable". "Aim for something more achievable". "Don't be silly -- what do you REALLY want to be when you grow up?" So, like a lot of kids, I "grew up" and tried to forget about wanting to be an astronaut.
Something happens when you try to bury childhood dreams, though: they stay away for awhile, but then they always come back another way. For some it's wanting to be a football star as a kid, then playing in a local league on the weekend. In my case I looked to the military and science instead. Dad was an Army engineer, and I excelled at science in school, so I jumped into both.
Josh Richards at his recent five-day experiment of simulated martian conditions.
In the 20 years after I first saw Andy Thomas on the news, I spent four years doing a degree in Applied Physics, five years with the Australian Army & Royal Australian Navy, a year as an mining explosives engineer, a year with the British Royal Marine Commandos, and another year working as a science adviser to the richest living contemporary artist in history. I call it "Career A.D.D.".
I might have learnt a lot doing all these different things, but none of it was fulfilling. None of it satisfied that desire to make a difference in the world that I felt but couldn't express properly.
Somewhere along the line I gave stand-up comedy a go, and finally started to find my own voice. As I wrote more and more comedy, I realised I'd always had a conflicted relationship with our species. On the one hand I love how we're capable of so much: curing polio, walking on the Moon, or the 7th season of Futurama. And yet we're also capable of such blinding ignorance: having kids and not vaccinating them, believing the Earth is flat in 2016, or calling them "potato scallops" instead of their REAL name: potato cakes.
Given this conflict, it was hardly a surprise that I themed my first stand-up show "Apocalypse Meow" around the science and religion of doomsday. But I also ended the show on a "hopeful" note -- that maybe the threat of an extinction-level event would drive us to send humans (and not just our robot friends) to other planets.
Josh Richards in the purpose-built 'HAB', most likely strumming 'Ground Control to Major Tom'.
I knew from my degree that we could probably get people TO Mars, but we couldn't get them back, so I started researching a comedy show about the idea of going one-way... when I found an organisation planning to do exactly that.
Mars One is an international not-for-profit organisation with the stated goal of the human colonisation of Mars, without any plan of return. So rather than bitch on stage that humans should have gone to Mars decades ago, I decided to apply for the only space organisation on Earth that doesn't care what patch of dirt you were born on. If you have the right personal attributes, they'll send you to Mars whatever your nationality, gender or education.
Finding Mars One was a smack in the face. Suddenly someone was offering me the opportunity to not only GO to space like I'd dreamed as a 7-year-old, but to also explore a whole other planet. Suddenly it all fell into place: the military, science, comedy. It was like I'd had all the pieces of the puzzle, but didn't know what picture they were supposed to form until then. It's been a roller coaster ever since, but I've never felt more focused and committed to anything the way I am to this.
Three years later, and somehow I've made it through the hundreds of thousands of applicants who expressed an interest, the 700 who passed the medical, and have wound up as one of the final 100 worldwide shortlisted astronaut candidates. In September, 24 of us will be chosen to start full-time training for the next 10 years, with just four of us launching as the first crew in 2026.
So, hopefully no one will need to tell their kids that they can't go to space because of where they were born ever again. Or call potato cakes "scallops".
Josh Richards recently entered into a glass space habitat for a five-day mission that saw him living and surviving in a simulated 'martian' environment. The solitary 'HAB' was purpose-built to mimic the conditions battled by a stranded Matt Damon in the sci-fi release 'The Martian', which has now launched on Blu-ray 3D, DVD and Digital HD.