What the heck is a space farmer?
WHAT THE HECK IS A SPACE FARMER?
At the end of the 1960’s America used its combined mathematics, science, and engineering prowess to innovate never-before-conceived systems and procedures to deliver human boots to the moon. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin shuffled their way across Mare Tranquillitatis, people young and old envisioned a future in space — a peaceful coexistance where humanity used scientific investigation as a vessel to constructively channel our natural curiosity about the universe around us.
Popular television at the time gave us shows like Star Trek, where we could envision ourselves slipstreaming past galaxies in sleek fabrications of our combined innovative energies. America was embroiled in an electrified dream cloud called the Space Race, and we were taking a commanding lead by landing on the moon first. By the time Apollo 17 flew in 1972, the war in Vietnam had drained American coffers and will, Apollo 13 showed people that flying beyond our biosphere was truely dangerous, and politicians were busy trying to convince the public that space budget would be better spent serving Earth needs.
From 1973 to 1979 NASA displayed great budgetary creativity in using the remenants of the Apollo Program to launch three successful Skylab missions; determined to learn to live and work in space. Elsehere in NASA, two Viking landers were constucted and successfully landed on Mars, giving humanity its first surface photography of the Fourth Planet. Politics may have killed the Apollo Program, but the desire to explore Mars would not die.
In 1981, the space shuttle Columbia ushered in the Shuttle Era, relegating human space exploration to Earth orbit. This would last until 2011, giving rise to a wealth of scientific research, technological innovations, a Hubble Space Telescope, and an International Space Station. In the meantime, NASA also sent a line of orbiters and and landers to Mars — Pathfinder, the Mars Polar Lander, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and now Curiosity. Some of these missions have concluded, while others continue to send data and photography.
The Mars Dream Yet Lives
Whether you are aware of it or not, a Second Space Race has already begun outside of mainstream media attention. Both NASA and SpaceX have proposed timelines for the human exploration of Mars. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are launching regular commercial missions to deliver cargo and satellites to orbit. NASA is supervising the distribution of research funds to universities and corporations through grants, challenges, and contracts. The European Space Agency (ESA), Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) have all shown continuous interest in manned missions to Luna and Mars.
Between international goverments and privatized space corporations, human beings will set foot on Mars before the 21st century is halfway through. This will occur, because the dreamers span the globe now, and they are putting the necessary work in to get it done. Human exploration of Mars is no longer beholden to the feigned interest of American political machines. Public interest in Americans may not be solidified, but with the combined efforts of the international STEM community, human beings will achieve habitation on both Luna and Mars, and we will become a space-fairing civilization.
So What The Heck Is A Space Farmer?
By the end of 2017, SpaceX is trying their first test launch of their Falcon Heavy Rocket, and the Space Launch System (SLS) — a collaborative effort between Boeing, United Launch Alliance (ULA), Orbital ATK, and Aerojet Rocketdyne — is scheduled to launch in 2019. The delivery systems will be coming online before 2020, and an Atlas rocket will take the Mars 2020 rover to Mars to continue collecting data and exploring. The Orion crew capsule is already being slated for manned missions beyond the moon. The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), the University of Hawaii’s Hi-Seas Mission, and NASA’s HERA Program are studying how crews will live, work, and act in long-term isolation. People are making preparations to go.
What is not being well-discussed across the wider STEM community is food production on Mars. With an sun-orbit-dependant minimum travel time to Mars of seven months, it is too failure-prone of an idea to assume that all necessary food and sundries can simply be shipped to a crew on the surface of Mars. It would also prove to be a deeply expensive decision, if humans intended to set up any form of long-term colony on the Red Planet. With this in mind, ARES members of the Charter Chapter at Florida tech have been working on agricultural research for Martian exploration under a Space Act Agreement with NASA. They call their project RADISH — Research to Advance the Development of InterStellar Horticulture.
There is no such thing as a Space Farmer — yet, but a combined team of biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers at FIT believe that there could be. Faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students started RADISH in the fall of 2016, to start evaluation of Martian regolith simulants and perform baseline plant growth studies. Now as research continues, there are discussions of perchlorate remediation and recycling aquaponics systems. The end-state vision is a self-contained ecosystem can can handle the bioload of six crew-members, but also assist in the remediation of waste products, and the generation of fertilizers and chemicals for industrial and scientific use.
To some, such pursuits are for “escapist dreamers who aren’t willing to address the problems here on Earth.” For those of us involved in the research, nothing could be farther from the truth. For us, securing the knowledge and technology to create sustainable agriculture for a future Mars colony means that the same knowledge and technology can provide new agricultural options to communities on this planet as well. The ability to generate generations of plant and animal food sources without impacting the surrounding biosphere would mean food for people in all parts of the world, without straining the ecological balance of the ecosystems that we live in.
Hopefully, at least some of the people who read this article will one day call themselves Space Farmers — Lunar or Martian. Others may never leave the planet, but perhaps they will implement an agricultural module attached to their home, forever changing the way that they live, work, and survive. With basic human needs like food production and waste remediation better handled at the family/homestead level, it is possible that we might also start to see changes in human interaction as well. Only time and effort will tell.
With any luck, many of you will join us in building a better future for humanity on this planet and the next. Just because humanity has lived this way so far, does not mean we must be content continuing to do things the same way forever. Hopefully some of you will chose to become Space Farmers.
Dave Masaitis is the Founding President of the Astrobiological Research and Education Society, current President of the Charter Chapter, and an Undergraduate Researcher at the Florida Institute of Technology. He is a carpenter, gunsmith, aviation mechanic, and former Paratrooper with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, double-majoring in Astrobiology and Marine Biology. After graduation, he is seeking a Doctorate of Space Sciences in Applied Exobiology, and hopes to pioneer artificial ecosystems for use on Mars, Luna, and any other planetary body that humans seek to visit. He is also a member of the Planetary Society, FIT’s Marine Biological Society, and the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society. He would like to finish a federal retirement at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and then intends to continue exploring Earth’s oceans. You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org