How Does a 28-Year-Old Californian Prepare Himself for Life (and Death) on Mars?

An interview with Andrew Tunks, one of the finalists for Mars One's ambitious interstellar mission.

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Feb 19 2015, 9:50pm

Photo courtesy of Andrew Tunks

Andrew Tunks has his whole life ahead of him, but the 28-year-old from the outskirts of LA is vying for the chance to leave it all behind. This week, he found out there's a 25 percent chance he'll die on Mars—which means the opportunity to back out of an impulsive and crazy decision is slowly closing.

Back in 2013, a Netherlands-based group called Mars One put out an open call for anyone seeking a one-way ticket to the Red Planet—the only barrier to entry was $38 and an obsession with space. Mars One got 200,000 applications before it stopped accepting entries that August. Many of the people who threw their hats in the ring were, in a word, weird.

But Mars One only wants the best and brightest—the group is seeking not only ambassadors for Earth, but also stars of a reality television show about the training program. "We fully anticipate our remaining candidates to become celebrities in their towns, cities, and in many cases, countries," program co-founder Bas Lansdorp said in a statement when the pool was whittled down to 1,058 would-be astronauts in December 2013. "It's about to get very interesting."

Things got even more exciting this week, when 100 people, including Tunks, made it past the next series of cuts. There is only one more selection round before 24 future Martians are divided into teams of four and sent into a decade of full-time training. Then—barring some mishaps or some (very public) chickening out—they'll be catapulted to Mars, where they'll either die very quickly or colonize.

When I spoke to him on Wednesday night, the Californian (who now lives in part-time in London) seemed fairly chill about the prospect of leaving behind his family and girlfriend to live out his days on a distant rock. He told me he entered the contest on a kind of whim, to see how far he could get, though he also thought that the idea of a multinational crew of colonists landing on Mars could "really bring people together."

Related: "Taxi to Mars"

VICE: Because there's a TV show attached, some people might think Mars One is a publicity stunt. What have your interactions been like with them so far, and how serious do they seem about making it happen for real?
Andrew Tunks: I think they are absolutely dedicated to this, really intelligent and going about it in a good way. I've met Dr. Norbert Kraft, who's the chief medical officer for the project, and he's done a lot of work with researching astronauts in confined situations. He's worked for NASA. He said one of the funny things that tends to happen is that people start hooking up pretty quickly. He also said the reason they're going for more "normal people" rather than astrophysicists and the people you would think [you would want on a mission like this], like surgeons, is generally you want people who are good at getting along with other people. And the people who are driven to be the stereotypical astronaut who's super fit, super the-best-at-everything, super smart—tend to be kind of assholes. And he said in multiple runs when they've gotten those kinds of people, it just breaks down because people can't get along. They end up exploding at each other and stuff.

Is there something in particular you think would be valuable to the mission that you possess?
I just think I'm a really kind person—I think that's important. I think I have an artistic sense and a sense of beauty and reflection. I meditate quite a lot and think I'm very peaceful. I think that's pretty important. But I'm also a really quick learner and I really enjoy learning and I'm into all that stuff. It might sound weird but I kind of see my potential role as talking to people in a global way I guess. I hope to inspire people rather than be the best at something or contribute a certain skill. They'll be training us for ten years to learn engineering and medical stuff and all the things we need to operate this colony.

"My mom, whenever I bring it up, she goes, 'Well, you know you're not going. You can't go to Mars. Don't even think about it.'"

Are you depressed or disenchanted with things on Earth?
I really like Earth. I love humans. I think we do so many amazing, beautiful things. i think the major problems that we face like global warming and violence and stuff like that. It's just that it's really hard to coordinate group action on such a massive scale to get countries and individuals who run them who are making tons of money agree to stop lining their pockets and do something that's good for everybody. Our brains are wired to have us survive. It's just a matter of taking that wiring and changing it to a new situation—which is we exploded on the planet and we have no natural predators and we're destroying our planet in the process.

What's it like telling your parents that you want to die on Mars? I can't imagine having that conversation.
It's pretty funny really. My mom, whenever I bring it up, she goes, "Well, you know you're not going. You can't go to Mars. Don't even think about it." When I first applied I didn't know how many people were applying and when I found out how many there were I was like I don't know if I'll get into the next round, let alone be in the final 100. So it hasn't even really been that big of a deal until now. But it's kind of not up to her. As much as I love my parents and thank them for everything they've done for me, it's my life. It is a sacrifice though and I would be really heartbroken to leave everything. It's really scary and everything but I think it's just an unprecedented opportunity, really. I have to at least see how far I can get.

Are you afraid of death?
The thing is whether you're afraid of it or not, it's going to happen so what's the point of being afraid of dying? And also we only have so many years here and then it's all over and done with, so I don't see the point in being afraid of it or needing your life to be a certain way. I think that expectations can be kind of bad for you. I don't know if I can explain this right but I think you're afraid of death when you don't think that you can be happy until you achieve a certain thing.

An MIT study says the first group of settlers would likely suffocate in 68 days. Does that deter you, or at least make you hope to be one of the later crews?
I didn't see that, actually. But I definitely don't want to be in the first group. Let me just say that. [ Laughs] Um, God, four people, eight people is bad enough. But just four people for, I guess it would be like seven months in transit, and then two years? That's a long time to be with just those people in such a stressful environment. I think the next crew would be much easier.

So besides people, what things would you miss about home?
The atmosphere and nature, I'd say. Just having breathable oxygen around you all the time is a blessing that you don't really think about. I really like nature and I really like dense nature. I like rain forests and things like that so it'd be really difficult to go to a place where there's barrenness everywhere.

Not a lot of "dense nature" on Mars. Pretty much just this. Photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Have you ever considered the possibility of changing your mind as soon as you've left?
I have thought about that but at that point you're pretty much stuck with that decision. It's like, what are you gonna do about it? It's happened anyway so live with it and be happy.

What would do you do for seven months stuck on a spaceship without losing it?
Rock back and forth, chew my nails, write all over the walls. [ Laughs] I don't know, probably watch movies and stuff, exercise to keep up muscle mass, probably exercising for a good two or three hours a day. I might write. It depends what I'm into in ten years. It would be challenging but I'm sure we'd have figured something out to do—maybe we could write our constitution on the way.

"Life is kinda shitty a lot of the time. Life is suffering."

What do you actually have to do while you're there?
I'm sure there will be plenty of science missions. There would also be a lot of daily maintenance stuff, just taking care of the colony, building it up and planning the next steps and building them.

I'm reminded of this book that I read called Giants in the Earth. The author is [Ole Edvart] Rolvaag. It's about these settlers from Sweden who basically cross the country and set up a little homestead in the middle of Minnesota or something like that and there are just these horrifying winters with overwhelmingly cold blizzards and it's a really hard life there and it's just these couple little families. The main character is just consumed with this idea of building a kingdom and everywhere he looks he sees an opportunity to build his kingdom. He works like a maniac building his dreams, seeing something where nothing is. So I kind of imagine it would be like that. It would be constantly seeing opportunities to build your kingdom and to make a better life for yourself and for the other colonists.

What if it turns out to be really shitty and you don't like it, what would you tell yourself to convince yourself this is worthwhile?
Life is kinda shitty a lot of the time. Life is suffering. Everything about being alive is really challenging. If it's not one thing, it's something else—so yeah it might be really tough on Mars, but it's still just life. I think it would be nicer to be on Mars than in Somalia or Syria right now. There are so many horrible places on Earth. At least [on Mars] you're in control of your destiny, more or less. You have this global platform as well. I think that's really inspiring. That's a reason to keep going. You have the entire world watching you and that's such a powerful thing. I feel like it would be really letting everyone down and letting yourself and the universe down to just be like, Fuck it, this is hard. I want to die. I'm just gonna jump out of the airlock.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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And check out Andrew's page for his upcoming book, The Occulus, here.

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