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UNM student on short list for Mars

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“Everything I’ve done, up to now, has been to make myself an astronaut,” says Zachary Gallegos, a University of New Mexico graduate student who is among three New Mexicans on the latest short list of those qualified to go to Mars. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Everything I’ve done, up to now, has been to make myself an astronaut,” says Zachary Gallegos, a University of New Mexico graduate student who is among three New Mexicans on the latest short list of those qualified to go to Mars. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

History is replete with tales of hardy, driven immigrants with the courage to leave their homes for distant lands – the United States, Canada, Australia – in search of a better life, never to return.

Such dramatic decisions, however, pale in comparison to the move Zachary Gallegos wants to make.

The graduate student at the University of New Mexico in the Earth & Planetary Science Department hopes to relocate, permanently, to Mars.

That’s right, Mars.

He is one of three New Mexicans left on a “short list” of potential Mars pioneers. Keeping him company are Maj. Ken Johnston, a 71-year-old Civil Air Patrol commander from Belen, and James Wertz, a 49-year-old Albuquerque resident who was a test pilot with the Air Force.

“Humans are meant to live, to learn, to explore,” Gallegos said during an interview in the Mars Science Lab in the basement of UNM’s Northrup Hall. “I have always been fascinated with exploration. Everything I’ve done, up to now, has been to make myself an astronaut.”

The project he has signed up for, Mars One, is a private, international, not-for-profit venture based in the Netherlands. Mars One wants to send four earthlings to the red planet in 2024 and four more two years later, ultimately establishing a colony of 16. There is one hitch: They cannot come home, ever. That would be too costly.

“No,” said Gallegos, 26, reflectively, “you live out your days on Mars.”

That thought alone is chilling. His parents, who live in Bosque Farms and run an electronics business near the Sunport, “are not overjoyed,” he said. They often plead with him to reconsider: “Why can’t you join NASA and just go to the moon?”

His response: “I’d love to go to the moon, but this is the opportunity right now.”

Gallegos, Wertz and Johnston were among more than 200,000 people from more than 140 countries – nearly one-quarter of whom were Americans – who answered the call last year to become Mars One pioneers. The list has since been whittled to 706 and eventually will be cut to 24.

Gallegos said he would no doubt yearn for fresh mountain air, cool streams and the great outdoors, but he is sure traveling to Mars would be worth the sacrifice. After a seven-month voyage through space, the plan is for the chosen few to live in climate-controlled, hermetically sealed capsules with an artificial atmosphere and would venture outdoors encased in pressurized space suits.

Gallegos graduated with honors from UNM in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Earth & Planetary Sciences. As an undergraduate, he participated in research under the guidance of Horton Newsom, a well-known professor affiliated with the Institute of Meteoritics. Gallegos is now taking six hours in planetary science-related coursework that he would like to see grow into a doctorate program.

Under Newsom’s lead, Gallegos worked on a laser-induced instrument that is now part of Curiosity, the nuclear-powered rover that has been prowling and probing the Martian landscape for nearly two years.

When he was still an undergraduate, he landed a job as a researcher at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, he contributed an 80-page chapter to a thick scientific tome called “A Global Lunar Landing Site Study to Provide the Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon.”

In fact, when Gallegos opens his mouth to speak, it’s often science that spills out.

According to the Mars One website, all of its astronauts must be “intelligent, creative, psychologically stable and physically healthy.” Fit and healthy, deadly serious and decidedly smart, Gallegos seems to fit the bill. He is also a passionate student of all things Martian, a geologist who would love to dig his hands into Martian soil.

Mars One is the brainchild of two Dutch men whose goal is to establish a permanent colony on Mars. The next step in selecting the astronauts will include rigorous testing, simulations of life on Mars and coping with isolation.

Gallegos noted that many more men than women applied, but he expects the finalists to be more or less gender equal. Ultimately, it is expected that the astronauts will reproduce, creating a native race of human Martians.

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