There are many students on this campus who are moving up in the world, but Zachary Gallegos is hoping to move out of the world.
Gallegos, a 26-year-old graduate student who studies Earth and planetary science, is one of 1,000 men and women who are competing to be part of the 16-astronaut team for the Mars One Mission.
“I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,” he said. “Humans are meant to do a few things. We’re meant to live, we’re meant to learn and we’re meant to explore. I’m an explorer.”
The ambitious program has set a goal of sending the first four-person crew to the Red Planet in 2024, and then subsequent teams every two years after, Gallegos said.
There is a small hitch though.
Gallegos, who spends his free time playing golf, brewing beer and plucking classic rock tunes on his guitar, said none of the prospective team members expect to come back to Earth.
A trip to Mars will take between six and nine months, he said.
Once there, there will be no way to build the new components the craft would need to leave Mars’ atmosphere. The mission will be life-long, he said.
Gallegos said he knew from a young age that he wanted to be an astronaut. For him, becoming a geologist was the best way to reach that goal because planetary missions always require the study of rocks and minerals.
While he would prefer to go to Earth’s moon, so that he could come back, he said he is dedicated enough to explore the universe and spend his life on another planet.
While Gallegos may be excited about the possibility of going to Mars, his two older siblings and his parents are not as thrilled, he said.
“My mom just gave me this look like I’ve never seen before and my dad said, ‘You’re not going,’” he said.
If Gallegos is selected to go to Mars, he would be able to send and receive emails with his family every day, but he would never be able to speak with them again, he said.
When it comes to Mars, very little is known, he said. Most of the discoveries about the planet were made in the last 40 years, but even that is not much. The four rovers that have successfully landed on Mars have only traveled a combined total of 50 miles across the planet’s surface.
“Most of what we’ve learned about Mars has been since the ‘70s,” he said. “When we passed by with some of our first missions to the outer solar system we got our first pictures. Since then we’ve just been increasing our knowledge. We have orbital data, pictures and spectral data.”
The Mars One Mission is unique in a number of ways. According to mars-one.com, the program is a non-profit organization with a goal of colonizing Mars through crowd-funding, grants and sponsors. So far, the program has raised $218,000 of its estimated $6 billion budget.
“The whole thing basically is crowd-funded,” Gallegos said. “I have a feeling as it comes closer, and the mission comes to fruition, NASA will get involved. Other space agencies and probably some university support, because everyone will want to be involved in the research.”
Horton Newsum, an Earth and planetary science research professor and Gallegos’ adviser, said he is proud of Gallegos for what he’s accomplished both within the UNM program and with the Mars One Program.
“I think reaching the shortlist is exciting and certainly represents the role UNM plays in space exploration and the fact that the students are doing so well,” he said.
However, Newsum said he thinks it is unlikely a mission to Mars will happen any time soon because of the risks to the astronauts.
That doesn’t mean the program is any less important though, he said.
“I think that the Mars One Program is important for inspiring people to think about Mars, to think about exploring the solar system,” he said.
Living on Mars is a bigger change than most people might realize at first.
Gallegos said the astronauts will be expected to make their own food, which means building a large greenhouse. They will also need to rely on shipments launched from Earth for things such as tools and other supplies.
“I think it’ll be exciting, but it’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “If you look at the statistics on missions to Mars, close to half have failed. They’ve not gotten there, or burned up in the atmosphere, or lost communication on landing.”
Gallegos said he does plan to take his guitar with him though, so he will have music on Mars, as many astronauts have done before him.
“If you look at the astronaut from the (Canadian Space Agency) Chris Hadfield, he played Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity,’” he said. “It’s a good song, but I don’t like it as much as (Elton John’s) ‘Rocket Man,’ so I’m going to outdo him.”
There is also little chance for solar power, because Mars gets about 40 percent less of the sunlight Earth receives. There is also no magnetic field on the planet, so the astronauts will be bombarded with radiation, he said. Cancer will be a big concern for the Mars colonists.
“We probably won’t live a full life on Mars,” he said. “I’m hoping for like four years. I’m not expecting to live to 80 if I go.”
Gallegos said he will be speaking about his possible mission to Mars at the Albuquerque Museum early next week.