Meet The Girl Who Decided Not To Go To Mars So She Can Finish Her PhD
The Debrief: Meet the girl who was nearly part of the Mars One mission to send people to the red planet
When the shortlist of those hoping to go on a one-way mission to Mars was released last year, Gillian Finnerty's name was on it. An astrophysics student, aged 21, her dream had been to get off Earth and start colonising another planet ever since she was midway through sixth form. Having passed the medical, she then never made it to the psychological test – 'that's the most important one, because you can go totally mad up there' – because she found she'd been accepted on a PhD course and so, to the relief of her parents, dropped out.
The parental relief is understandable. For those of you haven't been following the news, the Mars One mission aims to send people to the red planet with no hope of them ever returning, mainly due to health concerns.
But, if you think Gillian is also relieved to not be going, considering the whole 'dying in space and never seeing anyone from Earth, or indeed Earth, again' thing, you'd be wrong. She may not be going on the first mission, but she's definitely applying for the second, or third.
'I'll reapply,' she tells me when we talk on the phone, while working through her PhD on Bioenergy (renewable energy we can create through organic, natural materials). 'People going to keep sending people up there because they know it's a viable alternative to staying on Earth as we slowly destroy it – and I'll be one of the older doctors by then, rather than the young people.'
Yesterday it was announced that of the five British hopefuls going up into space, one is 24 and another only 21. 'I really don't think it's a good idea to put young people on the first mission. We're not as experienced. Plus, you know in films, where the old people go: “Oh, go on, I'll sacrifice myself... You have the rest of your life!" It's just like that! I want to get some stuff out of the way before I go up, and also try to help Earth as much as possible, before it's ruined.'
Part of the driving force behind Gillian's eagerness to get up there is she believes that Earth will have gone to shit by the time she's in her 30s. So, in about a decade, then. Good. 'The only alternative to not going to space would be to live on Earth and watch it die,' she responds, matter-of-factly. 'I don't want to do that. If you imagine a cruise ship, the crew have figured out that it's about to sink, and they represent the climate scientists. At the moment, they can't tell everyone because there'll be widespread panic. But the Mars One astronauts are in a queue for the lifeboats, and I want to be in that queue.'
It makes for depressing reading, but when you think about the horrifying statistics regarding climate change – don't Google 'polar ice caps 1980 and 2012' because you might have a breakdown – then Gillian's desire to leave makes a lot of sense. We've already past four of the nine pillars that make the world habitable, for God's sake.
Her parents tried to guilt trip her, writing: 'We wish you all the best with all your dreams – except the going to Mars one,' on Gillian's 21st birthday card, but it all pales in comparison to the world ending and being able to save mankind. She's of course sad to leave people behind, but it's for the good of humanity. Like Bruce Willis blowing himself up on the asteroid in Armageddon.
'I talked with my parents over the phone about it when I applied, and there was a lot of hanging up,' she remembers. 'When I had to pay for the medical, they were just asking why I couldn't quit – mainly because I knew by that point I might not go on the first mission, I just didn't want to have this dream of going into space, only to find out I have some sort of hereditary disease or something.'
The medical was £550, on top of more fees, which meant she had to extend her overdraft, twice – so, unsurprising her parents hung up on her a bit. They have, though, chilled out now that she's staying on Earth for a few more years, 'If you interviewed them, they'd probably say: “I think she's crazy! I don't know what she's doing!” But, for now, they're tentatively happy that I'm not at least going on the first mission.'
Even if she doesn't end up on the Mars One, she's going to be an astronaut. That's not up for discussion. It's been at the forefront of her mind ever since she realised halfway through sixth form, and decided to take two years worth of Physics in just twelve months (for which she got the highest marks in the college), as well as join every sports team the school offered. You can't exactly question ambition like that.
And it's an ambition that not even friendship can shake. She's confident that her closest friends understand, and won't mind when she blasts off to Mars, never to return. 'There's a relationship curve – the more someone gets to know you, the more they don't want you to go, but then the closer you become, they realise it's what you want so they're eventually just happy for you,' she says. 'Close friends will be sad, but they'll all be getting married and not seeing each other anyway.'
Yes, but they'll not be seeing each other while going to coffee shops, and walking around parks, and breathing air that is (while getting a bit polluted) actually breathable. If Gillian had gone on the first Mars mission, she'd be building corridors and installing solar panels and basically creating some sort of space to live. But when she goes up as part of the second or third mission, there'll be way more stuff up there she can either help create or use, because those before her have already constructed them. We admit that a gym (on Mars!), TVs (on Mars, though!) and easy internet access (but it'll be on Mars!) sound pretty cool. And while they won't be running around nude on the terrain anytime soon, at least it'll start to feel comfortable and homely. And there'll be a greenhouse where they can grow trees, which is a bit like a park. But on Mars.
All the same, I want to point out some key scenes in Interstellar, where he misses his family and it's all very tense, but decide against it. Instead, I bring up the bits in the films where astronauts die and are left to float around outside of space and time as we know it.
'Thousands of bodies were dug up and moved in London to make way for the Tube network, people accidentally dig you up when the turn churches into club venues, it's so much better to die in space,' she replies, without missing a beat. 'It'd be a way more significant death. If anyone was going to enter our solar system and have a look around, they'd see a record of our explanation in the form of my body.'
Fair enough. So what are the options for the rest of us? Well, either there's some sort of wizard who will pop out of a cave and solve climate change, or the Mars One is successful, they keep sending people up there, and eventually find out it's a great place to live so we all live happily ever after. 'I don't doubt that it'll work,' says Gillian. 'It's just down to money, but now the Mars One team have got public awareness, that means they know it's likely to be a success. And that it's necessary for the human race.'
God speed, Gillian. Anyone else suddenly feel the urge to drink a lot of gin?
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