Spending long stretches of time outside of Earth’s atmosphere confronts humans with enough challenges—extended anti-gravity exposure, limited resources, hostile atmospheres and even mutant microbes—but in the face of these threats it seems we’ve forgotten one of the most critical needs for survival in space: food.
While we can stock spaceships with enough freeze-dried dinners for the International Space Station and short-term excursions to the moon, that’s not going to fly if we’re going to colonize Mars or some other extraterrestrial planet. There have already been eager Earthlings signing up for the first settlement on the Red Planet, even though scientists still haven’t entirely figured out how to keep them alive. With terraforming out of the question, we will need a self-regenerating food source that will withstand a controlled environment in the midst of a virtually nonexistent magnetic field and almost zero atmosphere.
There is a place on Earth almost as harsh and remote as that dusty red expanse. Chronically dry and windy, pounded by radiation, and with an average temperature of -76 degrees Fahrenheit -- not to mention atmospheric pressure that is less than 1% of the rest of the planet’s and mostly carbon dioxide -- Northern Canada offers a prime testing ground for prototyping the controlled environment needed to ensure we don’t starve on Mars. Needless to say, you will need to eat vegetarian.
You can’t make something grow in the northern wilds of Canada without an enclosure that has been carefully engineered to provided optimal Earth-like conditions. Likewise on the Red Planet, though there are some exceptions. Scientists at the University of Guelph are researching crops that can flourish even under the oppressive Martian atmosphere (or lack thereof) and near-absence of oxygen. For those that do need a controlled environment if they aren’t going to wither in space, the Guelph team foresees growing them using inflatable greenhouses that have been conformed to the specific needs of each crop, right down to the necessary light intensity and color or spectrum.
“Candidate crops” being considered for Martian cultivation include a variety of minerals and plant proteins (think soy). Extreme agriculture means extreme measures. In a place where resources are severely limited, these will have to grow in a compact space, thrive off limited water and produce minimum waste. Recycling could literally determine whether or not we survive.
Though no one with a one-way ticket to Mars will be taking off anytime soon, the Guelph research will also benefit those who inhabit inhospitable environments right here on Earth. It just makes more sense to sustain crops within an area instead of importing everything from the other end of the planet.