Explosives expert, engineer, commando, astronaut, stand-up comedian – Josh Richards has many titles. Don’t miss him at WA’s Engineers Australia Young Engineers Summit, because he may not be on Earth for much longer.
People react quite differently to the idea of risk. Josh Richards, some might argue, feels a magnetic attraction to situations that other might consider dangerous. But actually, his motivations are far deeper than that.
Richards’ father was a construction engineer in the Army and spent the final few years of his active career defusing unexploded missiles, bombs and other ordnance at the Army’s training base at Puckapunyal in central Victoria. Richards decided to follow his dad’s career. He too was attracted to the challenge of working with high explosives and quickly became an in-demand explosives engineer. But it had little to do with adrenalin or risk taking.
The 32-year-old also recently announced that, 13 years from now, he might be leaving planet Earth, never to return, on the Mars One mission. Some might also consider that a step too far. But once again, his decision has nothing to do with the perils involved.
“This has all been challenging for my family to come to terms with and I know that every time I make it through another selection round for Mars One, they feel a mixture of pride and emotional turmoil,” he said.
“But I think the important thing for me is that they can see that I’m doing a lot of good while I’m here, on Earth. I feel a personal responsibility to make the most of the time that I’ve got. My motivation comes from a need to do good.”
An engineer’s race to space
What is Mars One all about? It is a project that has as its aim the establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars. For those living within that settlement, it’s also a one-way ticket. There will be no returning to Earth after the 2031 launch and the eight-month journey to their new home.
“A lot of people ask me whether I’m scared of dying on Mars,” Richards said.
“But I think a lot of people haven’t fully accepted that we’re all going to die. What’s truly unique is if you get a chance to improve the world you live in while you’re alive.”
The Mars One team said human settlement on Mars will aid our understanding of the origins of the solar system and our place in the universe.
“As with the Apollo Moon landings, a human mission to Mars will inspire generations to believe that all things are possible, anything can be achieved,” according to the Mars One website.
For the past five years Mars One has been conducting a worldwide search, a live audition of sorts, to find people who are unique, adventurous and talented enough to accept the ultimate challenge.
A total of 202,586 people originally applied for the job and, through a series of tests including written, medical and psychological, that group has now been whittled down to just 100.
“The next phase is to get us all together and see how we work in teams,” said Richards, who earned a Bachelor of Science (Applied Physics) during his time in the Army, says.
“Everything has been based on the individual so far. The next phase is how we play with others.”
“They’re looking to train a final group of 12 to 24 astronauts. Just four will be sent as part of the first crew, but a pool of astronauts will be required to form that first crew.”
It’s more than Richards’s ability to blow things up that got him this far in the process. Two hundred and ten days spent locked in a tin can, hurtling through space, is enough to drive anybody barmy. A person who boasts not only engineering and military experience but also a proven ability to look on the bright side is a valuable crew member, indeed.
The comedy edge
Richards’ six years in the armed forces were adventurous but stressful. On top of the explosives engineering, he spent time as a Navy clearance diver and even spent time with the British commandos.
Once he left the military he spent a year in mining, once again as an explosives engineer, then found himself in London. Here, he spent nine months working for renowned artist Damien Hirst. What does an explosives expert do for an artist? Blows up his work, of course!
“I was technically employed as a studio technician but my main role, in my very first week, was to manufacture napalm and set fire to a bunch of Hirst’s artwork,” Richards said.
“This was all to be caught on camera and played as the backdrop behind the opening segment of a U2 concert. So basically, I was the pyrotechnics officer and my job was to set fire to everything.”
Once the Hirst gig had burned itself out, Richards found himself drawn to comedy. He’d long toyed with the writing of comedic text, and now he felt the urge to make it his career.
“When I worked for a year in the mining industry I hated it,” he says. “The only thing that kept me going was scuba diving and writing comedy. A couple of people had encouraged me to give stand-up comedy a shot, so I did.”
His stand-up career took him four times to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as to the Netherlands, Ireland, England, South Africa, Iceland, Israel, the US and across Australia.
The topic of his stand-up show, believe it or not, was Mars. It was called ‘Mars Needs Guitars’. His life experience all seemed to be pointing in one direction – upwards.
The engineering challenge
In terms of technology, Richards said, we’ve had the capability to send people to Mars for the last few decades.
“There’s some myth-making that says we don’t have the technology, but what they’re really talking about is reducing the risk down to zero,” he says. “But we’re talking about space exploration. This stuff is risky.”
What is needed is a shift away from the need for perfection and more towards something less refined and tougher, Richards believes.
“We need something that’s heavier, not quite as polished,” he explained.
“Look at what the Russians have done with their spacecraft in the past. American shuttles couldn’t launch if there was a single cloud in the sky, but the Soviets can launch in a blizzard. We need a shift towards something that is super reliable and easy to fix. We need something that is harder and tougher, something that does the damn job.”
A major technological push right now in the Mars One project is for spare parts that can be 3D printed from materials found on the surface of Mars. It all sounds like a fantastic challenge for an engineer.
That’s the message Richards is hoping to get across at the Young Engineers Summit, that young engineers should accept challenges that take them out of their comfort zone and also help society advance.
“I’ve done lots of weird and wonderful stuff,” he says. “But through it all I have always asked myself whether I’m helping people. Am I making the world a better place through what I’m doing? I hope I am.”
Josh Richards is keynote speaker at the Young Engineers Summit in Perth on Thursday 5 April 2018.