Zach Gallegos has had a love for geology and outer space since he was a child, and thanks to a lifetime of hard work, his dream of becoming an astronaut might become a reality.
He is currently one of the top 100 candidates, out of an initial pool of 200,000, to take a one-way trip to the Red Planet, with the goal of studying its geological history and helping humans to someday become an interplanetary species. 16 total will make the trip to Mars; four every two years.
“I have a personal interest of being an explorer, traveling to new places and seeing new things,” Gallegos said. “Going to Mars is the ultimate exploration, pushing the frontier.”
Gallegos won’t be getting to Mars all on his own. He is a candidate for the Mars One project, a proposed privately funded space mission created by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. Announced in 2012, the mission aims to send four people on a one-way trip to Mars, with the goal of setting up the human race’s first extra-planetary colony.
The ambitious plan would be partially funded by a worldwide reality show that would document the entire mission. Gallegos has survived two elimination rounds to get to the top 100 candidates.
Survival is key, he said, and although, scientists from different fields will contribute to the project, the mission can only be successful if they live to complete it.
“Geology is second compared to survival,” Gallegos said. “I’ve been practicing growing tomatoes, chile, potatoes and carrots so I know how to do it on Mars.”
He has also discovered glaciers on the planet that can be mined for water, he said. These are resources the team will want to know about so they are easily accessible.
Mars One, a nonprofit based in the Netherlands, said the mission has to be a one-way trip and the technology for a return mission does not currently exist.
“Humans have always moved from one place to another without the intention of returning,” the organization has said. “The need to expand into the horizon is ingrained within humanity, and the reason behind the success of our species.”
Gallegos said, if he were to make the trip, he would miss the food that is on Earth, along with his family and friends. But he is dedicated to traveling to Mars, something he has dreamed of since he was a child.
Gallegos said he has an extensive background in planetary geology.
He earned his undergrad from UNM in earth and planetary science and now works as a graduate assistant in the department while he finishes his master’s.
Gallegos, one of two geologists in the pool, is the only one with a focus in planetary geology, which helps his odds of becoming one of the final four.
“It is wise to have a geologist on the team,” he said. “No matter where you go on a space mission, there will be rocks.”
Gallegos’ dedication to the mission is unwavering, he said, demonstrated by the fact that he has survived cut after cut as the pool for potential Mars voyagers gets smaller and smaller. He has continued to train and conduct research that will ultimately help him when he sets out on his adventure, if he is chosen.
Gallegos traveled to Hawaii in July, with other geologists, as part of NASA’s volcanology field workshop, studying volcanoes similar to Mars’ Olympus Mons, the solar system’s largest volcano.
His department currently uses the Mars Rover lasers to scour the planet and determine what materials are present in the geological structures.
Gallegos couldn’t comment on what his team has discovered through that project, as it is unpublished research.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation recently passed a bipartisan bill to give NASA $19.5 billion toward a manned mission to Mars by 2025, but the bill still needs to be approved by the full Senate.
The Mars One initiative has estimated that it will cost $6 billion to sustain a small colony of people on the Red Planet.Their focus will be to expand the colony by sending astronauts every two years to nurture it as it grows.
“We hope to collaborate with several initiatives — private and public — that will play their roles in bringing humanity to a new planet,” according to a press packet provided by Mars One officials.
Nikole McKibben is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nmckibben92.