Alibi V.24 No.14 • April 2-8, 2015 

Interview

Martian Dreams

Mars One finalist Zachary Gallegos talks life and death on an angry red planet

Mars One finalist Zachary Gallegos
Mars One finalist Zachary Gallegos
Courtesy of Zachary Gallegos
In Total Recall, everyone wants to go to Mars. It's all the rage. Though it's not yet 2048, we've already started to plan the formation of a Mars-based colony. According to press materials, the Mars One mission—a one-way trip to the Red Planet expected to launch in 2024—received over 200,000 applicants. The mission is designed to determine whether the fourth planet from the sun can sustain life. The Weekly Alibi shared a beer with Zachary Gallegos, who has made it into the final 100, to see what he has to say about life on Mars.

Why don't you start by giving us a general overview of the mission and what you hope can be accomplished?

“Mars is very inhospitable. The pressure there in the atmosphere is .006 of what it is here on Earth. … So first you freeze, then you boil, then you explode all at the same time.”

Zachary Gallegos

The goal of the mission itself is to just set up a colony. My goal is to push forward in the area of space exploration and to keep our society aimed higher so that we keep doing cool things and not just destroy ourselves. There's a whole branch of pseudo-science, but close enough to science, that's called terraforming. And it's the idea of turning Mars into an Earth-like planet, something which takes tens of thousands of years down the line, hundreds maybe. Mars can be a habitable planet for whatever species evolves from us. [On] Mars, you can see volcanoes; you can see cratering; you can see evidence of water flow. It's a much more scientifically interesting object [than the Moon]. The Moon is close, and there's a big struggle in planetary science between people who say we should go colonize the Moon rather than colonize Mars. But we gain more from colonizing Mars, scientifically. I think we need to do both.

Mars has been called the Angry Red Planet. Why do you think it's so angry? Is it possible it's just misunderstood?

“Water is kind of tricky. … So the idea is that there’s lots of ice in the soil on Mars. So you just get bucketloads of soil, throw it into a heater, distill the water from the ice, and heat it and gather it. So that's how we're getting all of our water.”

Zachary Gallegos

Yeah, definitely. I would say “angry” would mean “inhospitable,” and Mars is very inhospitable. The pressure there in the atmosphere is .006 of what it is here on Earth. So super, super low pressure. If you go outside, you'll explode. And the temperature ranges anywhere from a few degrees above freezing to -108 degrees. So, super cold. So first you freeze, then you boil, then you explode all at the same time. So I would say that's the angry part of it. There are certain things you can do to avoid those things like having a space suit on and not going outside without it. And also probably the color. Red is a very strong color, often associated with anger like “seeing red,” and so that's why I would say that if someone were to call it the Angry Red Planet, it would be because of that. But yeah, I'd say it's just more misunderstood.

Not exactly a vacation spot: NASA animation of Martian topography
Can you describe what living on Mars is going to be like?

Um ... cold. Mars is super cold, so we have to have our habitats. And we can't go outside unless we're in a space suit. So it's going to be cramped. There's going to be about 1,000 cubic meters space for four people, so I'll have 250 m³ for my personal space.

“The things that come to mind, not in any particular order, that are always imminent dangers are: dehydration, starvation, radiation, your space suit or the entire inflatable capsule thing that we're living in could depressurize, and you can be exposed to the Martian atmosphere, which means instant death.”

Zachary Gallegos

How many people will they actually be sending?

Sixteen. That's their goal. I'm sure if it's successful, they'll just keep sending people, but right now the goal is to send 16 people, four at a time every two years. Each time they send four more, they send another round of supplies, shipments and habitats. If it's a long-lived program and there's enough support, money, then yeah, they could send us all out there. And the reason you can only launch every two years is because of the orbit. Mars is going slower around the Sun than the Earth, so by the time we catch back up to it, Mars [has] gone quite a ways around, so the launch window is really 26 months, but we say two years.

What will you do about food and water?

Water is kind of tricky. Water doesn't really like to exist on Mars in any state. If you know what the triple points of water look like, it's a graph where the different states are represented by ice, liquid and gas in their different areas. So on Earth, we're near the liquid side. On Mars, we're on the solid and gas side. So any time you have some water on the surface, it'll either freeze right away or evaporate away instantaneously. ... And that's because of the different temperature and pressure on Mars. So the idea is that there’s lots of ice in the soil on Mars. So you just get bucketloads of soil, throw it into a heater, distill the water from the ice, and heat it and gather it. So that's how we're getting all of our water. ... By the time we get there, there will be a huge tank full because supply missions are going ahead of us, and these little rovers are going to be doing exactly that [by] feeding this heater with soil and making the water. Now for food, Mars One is sending us with enough emergency rations so that we can set up our garden. But after that, we'll be completely self-reliant and growing our own food. It'll be pretty much a strictly vegetarian lifestyle.

What medical and psychological exams have you had to undergo?

I had to do a psych test, and I had to do the physical and medical exams. That was when we were going down to 700 [applicants]. So they told us at 1,000 that we had to go get these done within a few months. Mars One actually released a thing saying that there were a few people who changed their minds, and there were a few people who found out about serious medical conditions that they didn't know about [until] they had to do blood work. The guy who's actually doing the selecting is Dr. Norbert Kraft. Smart guy. He was part of a crew that locked [themselves] away for a few months. I think it was in Russia. They were doing a Mars isolation test. He basically studies the psychology of long-term space flight and isolation. So out of anyone, I would trust him to know who is capable of doing this.

Does Kraft have the final say? Are there other people putting their weight into this decision?

He is the chief medical officer, so he basically has the say-so. But other things count into it. Eventually, it will be based on who the people of Earth want to go.

Like an “American Idol,” cast-your-vote type of thing?

I think so, yes. I mean, with a little bit of help from Mars One. They're not just going to send up anyone. But it will count in some way.

Dr. Joseph Roche (a fellow Mars One finalist) recently came out against the mission and selection process, deeming it a scam. What are your thoughts on this?

I know that he was saying people are required to give donations or purchase merchandise in order to put them in better standing with the application committee, but that's not true. I've never had to donate to Mars One or purchase merchandise or anything. The things that he was saying about Mars One relying on sponsorship and donations is true. The mission is not funded by government. Mars One has set up a community online where you can go donate, buy merchandise and earn Mars One points. But that's just a way to raise money, awareness and to make the public feel connected to this, as they should feel.

It doesn't mean anything as far as selection goes. He was bashing the selection process because he thought it would be more NASA-like. And his comment about Mars One saying that we have to give them our money from sponsorships/media, that's not true. They’ve told us we can keep [any] money we make from interviews, and just ask that we maybe consider donating to the cause. And I'm okay with that because Mars One is taking me to space. But I think it's stupid of him to do this. All it takes for this mission to happen is for everyone to believe in it. He's now turning people against this for some reason; I think he doesn’t want to go. This guy could have dropped out and just not said anything, but I think he also wanted his 15 minutes of fame along with an exit strategy. I think that his own personal doubts about this mission, about him going, shouldn't influence whether the world makes something amazing like this happen. I feel it's better to be optimistic about things. Optimism is the best way for this to happen. He's damaged the whole mission, but he's an astrophysicist, which you really don’t need on Mars. I think he realized this and maybe got frightened about leaving the planet. When you make the final 100, you're kind of in it, and the only way to back out is to do something like this to save face. Mars One kicked him out. People like to focus on the negative, and thats a real shame.

How long do you expect to survive on Mars?

I am optimistic. There are different schools of thought on that subject. Me, I'm in the hopeful side of living a nice, long life. There was a study that MIT did a few months back. They're saying that with current architecture and everything, we'll live 68 days. That's on the low end. Their biggest find about the mission is that the plants that are growing are going to be making too much oxygen. So in order to sustain ourselves, we have to have so many plants. The plants are always converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. Eventually, the oxygen levels will rise to the point of being unsafe for breathing. So you can have something that takes the oxygen out of the atmosphere. You have oxygen concentrators here on Earth for medical and other uses. That can be implemented very easily. There's the issue of the water. Based off of measurements taken by orbiting space crafts, there's more ice in the soils as you get closer to the poles. The thing that you have to worry about then is [that] it's a trade-off between enough water or enough solar power for your energy, your heaters, everything that runs. Because it's going to be completely solar-operated, so it's a balancing act between how much water you want and how much energy you can afford to not have.

What do you think is going to be the ultimate cause of death?

Provided it's not natural, and I don't live a long life, anything can go wrong. The things that come to mind, not in any particular order, that are always imminent dangers are: dehydration, starvation, radiation, your space suit or the entire inflatable capsule thing that we're living in could depressurize, and you can be exposed to the Martian atmosphere, which means instant death. Now, they always send astronauts with means to avoid things like that. Since the Apollo days, they've sent people up with cyanide pills, [so] you wouldn't have to starve or die of thirst. But that's worst case scenario. But I don't even think I would do it; I think I would be constantly trying to make things better.

It is a deep question, but it's definitely something I've thought about. And the interesting thing about thinking of my own mortality in this situation is that I've come to appreciate life a lot more. Considering that I have a potential expiration date here on Earth, I really enjoy every day and every interaction, and try to make it the fullest that it can be.