From Dunlavin to Mars

Growing up in the countryside half way between Dunlavin and Kilcullen, Joseph’s interest in the night skies was ignited way before his school days in Naas CBS.

Growing up in the countryside half way between Dunlavin and Kilcullen, Joseph’s interest in the night skies was ignited way before his school days in Naas CBS.

“The fact that we have great skies in Kildare, depending on the weather, was a factor. Here in Ireland we have one of the best locations. We would have lots more observatories if we had better weather,” he emphasised.

Joseph’s is the youngest of four siblings - Finbar, Deirdre and Sinead, and is hugely grateful for the values his parents Colette and Patrick enstilled in him.

“I was probably interested in Science even as a child, I suppose I was also fascinated with dinosaurs and things like that - like most boys. In Dunlavin, even in primary school, I remember my sixth class teacher John O’Donnell started teaching us Science in a proper way. In secondary school, it continued with Mr (Peter) Clarke, who taught me Science in Junior Cert and then I had him for Leaving Cert when I studied Physics.

“Mr (Noel) Merrick had a huge influence on me, he was a fabulous role model. He was concerned about the academic side of things, but he was more concerned that students turned out to be level headed, grounded people - to make sure they were equipped to deal with life, and that really got through to me. That was something I always took with me.

“There are wonderful schools in Dunlavin, Kilcullen and Newbridge, but I went to the CBS because my father and my brother went there and I went on to follow them.”

When asked if there was one particular event that cemented his interest in the possibility of travelling to another planet, he responded; “A lot of people cite the moon landing, as such, for that inspiration, seeing people walking on the moon.

“I was a couple of generations after that but I think the Hubble space telescope launch in 1990 fascinated me, and by 93 it was sending back those amazing images. I remember seeing one of them on the front cover of National Geographic. They were intriguing. After I finished my degree in Physics, I spent a couple of months working with NASA. We were using the hubble telescope to observe dying stars. It was like coming full circle, I got to work on something which had fascinated me all those years before. Those images had a huge impact on society and they inspired people.”

The publicity surrounding his space travel application has fostered a renewed interest in Science.

“My nephew and godson Logan who is in school in St. Corban’s Primary School in Naas came home from school on Friday and he said they were discussing the trip in class. He was asking me do they do any terra farming on Mars. That is just brilliant, that they are discussing it. Lots of adults wouldn’t even know what that means.”

On completion of his PHD, Joseph took up his current position in the Science Gallery. Another knock on effect of the publicity is the increasing awareness of its work.

“The whole idea is to capture the public’s imagination about Science, not just people who have an interest in Science. They are trying to reach out to everyone to show them how it affects their lives in so many ways.”

“This is my dream job, on this planet,” he declared.

The Science Gallery is ranked amongst the top ten free cultural attractions in Ireland and has been such a success that they are setting them up in other places around the world. In fact, last month Joseph travelled to India to help begin the process there.

So how did he get involved with Mars One?

“I would monitor anything got to do with space exploration as part of the job, and anything space related comes across my desk. When I first learned about Mars One, I thought it was mental but quite unique. We are used to NASA or ESA (the European Space Agency) bringing forward space exploration. They have an excellent record and they would certainly not leave people behind, but this was different.

“They operate on tax payers money and have to justify any spend on space exploration. This was a not for profit organisation in the Netherlands trying to use private money to fund space exploration,” he outlined.

The mission is estimated to cost around $6 billion and it is hoped to fund it through crowd funding, reality television rights and private investment.

Joseph is not oblivious to the mammoth challenges faced by Mars One.

“There may be stumbling blocks. It may have to be delayed at some point. They have to protect the health of the astronauts, get the colony set up properly, and make sure the mission is financially viable.

“They have to set up the equipment on the ground, a communications satellite, a robotic rover that would assemble the habitat as soon as they can.

“The reality is that people do not do well in low gravity so they will have to adjust. The trip to Mars would take seven months and that will affect muscles and bone density.

“ The astronauts that come back from the International Space Station (ISS) after a six month stay are weak and it can take six months of rehabilitation for them to carry out normal life tasks. The astronauts would not be in a position after that length of time in space to arrive and start building or assembling the habitat.”

He explained that a reservoir of water will also be set up, reclaimed from the soil.

He revealed how the organisers are comparing the possible viewership to the Olympics where they could make between $6m and $8m on television rights.

“They are convinced they will get the global audience, like the moon landing, they would expect to get the entire world tuning in for a Mars landing.”

Over 200,000 people initially applied to take part including 850 Irish residents.

That has been now whittled down 1,058 and will be reduced to a final 40 to proceed to the training stage. It is planned to send four astronauts in 2024, and four every two years until a total of 20 are living there.

Joseph explains how they plan to create a reality TV series about choosing the finalists and then film the training.

So what’s the next step?

The intrepid Mars volunteer is attending the Trinity College doctor for a range of rigorous medical tests. Then, if he passes, there will be a series of interviews set up with a selection committee.

“Hopefully, they will think I am a good ambassador for my country and for the planet.

“My family are hugely supportive. I can’t praise my parents enough, they allowed me to make my own choices.

“If I made a mistake I learned from it. It’s like a science experiment, if it doesn’t work, you learn and you try again. Of course this is a bit different. If I manage to get through, they would be saying goodbye forever but the chances of me getting selected are still quite remote.

“My advice to my family was ‘nothing has been decided yet and there is no point in worrying until the day it actually happens’. There is no point.

“Even if it did happen, they would be absolutely delighted to see me live out my dream, not obviously to say good bye.”

His family have had a huge influence on his life and he would still be able to remain in contact via the internet.

“People have asked me who are the role models that I look up to, and actually they are my parents.

“They are the people that I am striving to be like. Commander Chris Hadfield is as well. I am friends with his daughter Kristin who is doing a PhD in Psychology in Trinity. I actually met him before he went to the ISS when he came to visit his daughter.

“We were over in O’Neill’s and he came in and had a drink, no one really noticed him back then. He was just a regular guy, a lovely man. This time he came over and he was treated like a rock star, but he was still the same guy, down to earth, and really humble.”

The time line for the selection of candidates is subject to change, but by April, Mars One will announce the next cut. The reality TV round kicks in then where viewers can vote for their favourite.

They will perform stringent physiological tests to see if the candiates can cope with the trip and the new life.

There will be training in the US and also in Arctic to get a sense of what it is like to live in isolation.

“For me it’s a win, win situation. If I get selected, it will be a dream come through, if I don’t, I might meet someone, end up getting married and having children and that wouldn’t be a bad outcome. That’s not exactly a consolation,” he stressed.