When humans actually set foot on Mars one of the many incredible challenges they will encounter will be how to grow food on this cold desert world.
Sending enough freeze-dried, prepackaged food 33.9 million miles to Mars would be complicated and costly, so any long-term settlers will need a hefty payload of seeds and nutrients to grow crops.
Enter the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute. In June the Florida Institute of Technology facility entered into a partnership with NASA's Kennedy Space Center to develop simulated Martian gardens to study the performance of assorted crops on the Red Planet's barren landscape.
Over a six week-long pilot study this summer, researchers grew Outredgeous lettuce (a variety of red romaine) in three different treatments – one in terrestrial potting soil (a control), one in Martian regolith simulant (soil similar to Mars), and one in Martian regolith simulant with nutrients added.
"The lettuce grown with a moderate concentration of nutrients did well as the potting soil," said Drew Palmer, an assistant professor of Biological Sciences.
"There was a crunch, the lettuce tasted fine. It was grown in soil at the lab that comes from Hawaii which simulates Mar's volcanic, rocky terrain based on spectral data collected from NASA's Mars orbiters such as the Curiosity rover."
Unlike earth soil, Martian soil has no organic matter in its content and fewer needed minerals to feed plants. Palmer and his team of faculty and students are seeking a magic formula for the type and amount of nutrients that will enable potential Martian farmers to grow an assortment of crops in the inhospitable regolith. Another major obstacle are nasty chemicals called perchlorates.
"We will need to inoculate the regolith with an engineered strain of bacteria to eliminate the percholorates making it more amenable to plant growth," Palmer noted.
Sound far-fetched? Not to Andy Weir, the author of the best-selling sci-fi novel "The Martian." The book was turned into the hit movie of the same name starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut and botanist. Watney gets caught in a sandstorm on Mars and is left for dead by his crew, who manage to evacuate the planet. He survived for more than a year by planting potatoes.
"Watney is a colonist growing potatoes there, so he's truly succeeding," said Brooke Wheeler, an assistant professor at the College of Aeronautics.
"Someday we look forward to a group of astronauts living there for an extended period of time. Sitting down and enjoying a big meal. Until then you're just visiting."
In the real world, a group of scientists in the Netherlands at the Wageningen University & Research Centre have grown- and harvested- a group of crops, including tomatoes, radishes and peas in different trays that simulated Mars and lunar soils.
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. President Barack Obama stressed a commitment for deep space travel in mid-October.
“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” Obama wrote for CNN in a post.
Two weeks earlier at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, SpaceX founder Elon Musk laid out his grand plan to colonize Mars and turning humans into a multi-planetary species within 40 to 100 years using a public/private partnership. "Occupy Mars" is plastered on T-shirts employees wear at SpaceX's vast factory near Los Angeles where 4,000 people work.
Last April, Musk announced he could launch an unmanned "Red Dragon" capsule as soon as 2018 from Cape Canaveral. His goal is to send a crewed spacecraft to the Red Planet within the next decade powered by the largest rocket ever built. The journey will take three to nine months, according to Florida Tech’s Physics and Space Sciences Department. Shorter times will be more expensive since more fuel is used.
Musk sees colonizing Mars as "life insurance," in case a natural event such as an asteroid impact or some human action destroyed civilization on Earth.
"I'm hopeful the first people could be taken to Mars in a decade or less," Musk said. "But the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars."
Growing food in space solves one of the biggest issues. It costs roughly $10,000 a pound to send food to NASA’s International Space Station (ISS), according to Howard Levine, an ISS project scientist. Last year ISS astronauts enjoyed space-grown lettuce for the first time. The red romaine lettuce took 33 days to grow using the Vegetable Production System (Veggie). NASA describes it as a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to encourage relaxation and recreation.
Florida Tech's researchers also plan to experiment with sugar peas, Red Robin tomatoes, sweet peppers, and sweet potatoes. All are tasty and nutritious foods approved for astronauts’ diets.
"Seeing the excitement generated in the students as they build teams to solve problems, engaging students in all different types of disciplines so we can get to Mars, that's really inspiring," said Trent Smith, Veggie Project Manager at the Kennedy Space Center. "The students are thoughtful, innovative and come up with great ideas. "
Down the road, other factors will be introduced to the Martian garden, such as the radiation exposure seeds would experience as they journey from Earth to the Red Planet. Mars has about 38 percent the gravity of Earth, so there are also questions about plant root growth on the "gravity-lite" planet. Water is also an important consideration for where to land and for planning the overall mission to Mars.
A final report on the earth-based Martian gardens is planned for May 2017. The findings will be the first step toward reliable, efficient food production for upcoming missions. In the spacecraft's extreme environment-- metal, wires and plastic-- gardening brings the astronauts a slice of life on earth.
"They get to care for and watch the plants growing," Smith said. "As they travel into deeper space and can no longer see Earth, that will be a definite morale booster. Enjoying the sights, smells and feel of home."
Photos courtesy of Florida Institute of Technology