Journalist Report: 02/02/2013
Today I’m taking a break from talking about cooking and eating food, and turning my attention to… food production. While the versatility and quality of the dehydrated vegetables is impressive, after a while you start to want something fresh. The only way to do that on Mars, or indeed any really remote location, is to grow it yourself. So at MDRS there is a greenhouse – called the Greenhab – where we test our ability to supplement our abundant dehydrated vegetable supply with fresh vegetables.
When one day we build a base on Mars, no doubt we will send people with all sorts of amazing futuristic technical expertise, but among them will be someone with one of the most ancient human skills – growing plants. Some skills have their day and then die – there’s not a lot of call for swordsmiths, Latin scholars or FORTRAN programmers these days – but the ability to get a plant to grow will remain essential, one way or another, as long as we plan to eat.
The idea of growing plants in the hostile ground and atmosphere of Mars may seem a little wild, but we’ve long mastered the ability to grow plants under difficult conditions. Victorian botanists and explorers brought exotic tropical specimens back to Kew aboard sailing ships, keeping them alive in sealed protective containers called “Wardian cases”. There was even a craze for growing exotic orchids and citrus in heated greenhouses on English country estates.
The ability to keep plants alive in rather hostile locations has found a more practical application at Antarctic bases. Few plants can survive in Antarctica, and nothing we’ve want to eat. It’s bad enough in the summer, when it’s just cold, but in winter it is also dark for months at a time. During the winter, nobody can come or go from Antarctica, so there are no deliveries of fresh vegetables. Not surprisingly, people get to crave something fresh and green.
If they are lucky, they are somewhere with a special greenhouse which can grow plants through the winter. At McMurdo Station on Ross Island there’s a nondescript building in the frozen desert which hides a lush bounty of green. It’s a large hydroponics house. The walls are insulated and lined with a silvery reflective paper, to make the most of the light. It is lit entirely artificially, and the whole building is bathed in a lovely golden glow. It really does feel like a tropical oasis. It’s not a huge building, but it allows the overwintering crew the occasional salad or tomato, as well as a place to pretend you can feel the warm glow of the sun on your skin.
And so to MDRS. The greenhab isn’t yet quite as involved as the McMurdo hydroponics house, but it does give crews a chance to experiment with growing food in an extreme environment. Heat regulation is a big challenge – since it is frequently freezing at night but even in the winter the plants can cook on a sunny day. There are heaters, fans, insulating foam and a heating pad to try and create the right conditions for different plants.
So far, we have eaten a couple of strawberries and some microgreens – which are the next stage larger than sprouts. By the time we leave, we should have had a taste of kale, rainbow chard, cress and collards. I’m optimistic that the next crews may have a nice range to try to, as I planted up a tray of different seeds today.
When we grow food on Mars we will have some additional challenges that we haven’t had either in Antarctica or MDRS. For a start, we will have to provide one more thing than we have to provide in Antarctica – the atmosphere. Antarctica is pretty hostile at times, but it does have a breathable atmosphere. In addition, it’s a lot harder and more expensive to get stuff to Mars than it is to the South Pole. We are going to have to get really smart with our waste and water management especially.
It’s a delicate balancing act to keep plants alive in extreme environments, and it’s going to require an equally delicate balance of scientific knowledge and that most ancient skill of