Feeding one million people on Mars

I find that my fascination with Elon Musk’s endeavors is not universally shared when I contact a colleague from the Department of Biology. As an astrobiologist he is not at all impressed with Elon Musk. In fact, Musk irritates him. Not that he thinks Elon Musk has not done remarkable things, but what bothers him is that Musk has succeeded in hijacking the public discussion about expeditions to Mars. The idea that you can make a permanent settlement on Mars to which people can travel forth and back is, in his professional opinion, ridiculous. Partly because it would be insanely expensive to observe all the required safety measures when transporting humans. “These days,” he says, “we will not accept the same risks as when people set out to colonize America and two out of three ships arriving was considered a success”. At the same time, any prolonged stay at Mars will see bone structure and muscle deteriorate as a result of the low gravity. A return to Earth, he projects, will be out of the question. But most importantly of all, as a scientist he finds a human settlement problematic because it will mean contamination of Mars. For him, and for most of the scientific community, finding native life on Mars should still be the overarching ambition. Give it a few years, he says to me, and androids will be sufficiently developed to perform the tasks a human would on Mars. It will be cheaper and it would eliminate danger of casualties and contamination.

The following week, attuned to my interests, he sends me an article called Feeding One Million People on Mars (Cannon & Britt 2019). This article is a good example of how SpaceX has succeeded in shaping not only the public discussion about settlement on Mars but the research agenda too. The stated aim of the article is to explore how to sustainably feed a predicted Martian population of approximately one million by 2100. This kind of scenario has become important to model given SpaceX’s aim of sending the first 12 people to Mars around 2025, increasing it from there with 100-200 new inhabitant with every 26 month as the ideal launch opportunity presents itself (Cannon & Britt 2019: 1).

In their article, Cannon and Britt depart from the premise that importing enough food to sustain a civilization on Mars is both too expensive and also against the idea of a self-sufficient population (ibid.:2). Based on their calculations, they propose a locally produced diet based on a combination of stable crops such as corn, wheat, soybean and sweet potato grown hydroponically in LED lit tunnels under ground; insects such as crickets farmed in bins stacked vertically by robots; cultured algae, meat, or fish grown from stem cells in bioreactors (ibid.); and finally light calorie vegetables such as tomatoes, salads and bell pepper farmed mainly for psychological reasons (ibid.:3). Not up for discussion is the fact that to work all of this produce must be genetically modified to achieve highest yield possible and optimal nutrients (ibid.:8).

Food ethics on Mars is of a new order: You must be pro-GMO and automation to survive; you must be pro-GMO to be sustainable. Yet what they present us with is not the dystopic image of powder food dispensed by talking robots through slots in a beige wall in a room without corners and angels. If food is grown under high-tech and sci-fi conditions it is precisely done so in order to honor what is recognized in the literature dealing with food production in space as a human psychological dependence on cooking, and eating fresh and varied food (ibid. 2).

Image: SpaceX

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