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Published on November 12th, 2018 | by Tina Casey


Beyond Potatoes: The Human Factor & Life On Mars (#CleanTechnica Interview)

November 12th, 2018 by  

Okay, so potatoes are probably out, but hydroponic microgreens and other home grown menu extenders can could provide at least some of the human fuel needed to land a crew of scientists on Mars and keep them there long enough to establish a permanent colony that will serve as a base for huge corporations to come in and exploit the natural resources of the Red Planet.

Photo by Tina Casey

How likely is that? How about some time within the next 20 or 30 years?

Yep, We’re Going To Mars

With all this in mind, CleanTechnica is looking forward to Season 2 of National Geographic’s televised series Mars, the first episode of which unspools on Monday, November 12 at 9:00 p.m.

Mars combines scripted action and real life footage to make a good case for those who argue that the pieces of the technological puzzle for Mars colonization are at hand. If you’re thinking solar power and stuff like that, you’re on the right track.

We just have to put the the pieces together and send them out there, that’s all.

If you’re skeptical, take a look at the movie about the US moon landing, First Man.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got to walk on the moon in 1969 because hundreds if not thousands of people went to work on Earth every day for nine years figuring out how to get technology from our planet to work in space — and that’s not counting the generations of engineering and technology that went into human flight before President John F. Kennedy announced the Moon Shot program on May 25, 1961.

And then there’s all the teachers who educated all the scientists and engineers, to say nothing of all the taxpayer dollars that went to support Moon Shot, but who’s counting?

What About The Human Factor?

You can catch up on Mars Season 1. for the science part. As Mars Season 2 makes clear, it’s the human factor that gums things up.

How gummy could that get? Watch the series!

For a hint at what’s to come, earlier this month CleanTechnica had an opportunity to chat with some of the key people involved with the show, at a “Mars-themed lunch” (yes, really) graciously hosted by National Geographic.

Following are some of the conversations, edited for clarity and flow.

Jihae (Joon and Hana Seung)

Multi-talented artist Jihae made her acting debut as the lead character in Season 1 — actually, two characters as you will see if you watch the series. She returns in Season 2:

There is a lot of research to understand, to walk in the shoes of an astronaut. The demands for dedication and sacrifice are enormous.

It’s such a dangerous, risky profession. I have deep admiration and respect for people who are in a sense like guinea pigs.

In Season 1 the question was, “Are we going to make it?” In Season 2 the question is, “Can we live there? Are we going to survive as a colony?”

Beyond basic survival, the challenge is how to stay put. We have a machine that makes breathable air, but living in a hab with people who didn’t choose to be [there or together] is the real challenge. You have to face them every minute.

Justin Wilkes (Executive Producer)

Executive producer Justin Wilkes underscored the human factor from an environmental perspective:

The biggest challenge really is the human element. How are we going to behave, are we going to repeat the same mistakes?

Season 2 is about the balance between exploration and exploitation. You need both pieces to proceed.

Tariq Malik (Space.com)

That thing about needing both pieces is a good point in an era where anti-tax sentiment runs so strong that we can’t even maintain public support for roads and bridges let alone building new ones on Mars.

The role of private financing also surfaced in conversation with Space.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik:

Since the 1960s, NASA has had agreements [with private enterprise]. They will help with ideas, scientists and open access.

So now, companies like SpaceX and Boeing have developed products that NASA wants to buy.

On the other hand, we haven’t landed people on anything other than the Moon. So, they will have to re-learn all of these things again.

The discussion turned to commercial space travel. Malik pointed out that at least one form of outer space vacationing is already attracting the big bucks:

Look at the solar eclipse. There are solar eclipse cruises that sell out. It’s the same thing for Mars. For SpaceX [to offer passenger seats], it would be the same thing as buying another house.

Without naming names, Malik noted that a Japanese entrepreneur — just a guess, but probably Yusaku Maezawa — is nailing down plans to send a team of artists on a proposed SpaceX flight to the moon. The idea would be to promote their post-flight works on Earth.

Dr. Michelle Perchonok (President, IFT/Institute of Food Technologists)

The conceptual platform for the whole Mars series is “hey, we can actually do this, for real!” and with that in mind, National Geographic enlisted Dr. Michelle Perchonok, a top expert in nutritional science to science out the challenge of feeding people on Mars.

Dr. Perchonok counts a decades-long career at NASA, among her experiences, so there’s that.

As Dr. Perchonok describes it, science is only part of the challenge. The human factor is in play again:

You could design the best food system for NASA but if it doesn’t look familiar, people won’t eat it. You have to balance the psychological with the nutritional.

The idea of in-flight cooking is also in for a dose of reality:

You have to balance all the resources, including crew time, mass, and power. It’s a systems engineering approach.

For ISS [the International Space Station] everything is produced on Earth and packaged. The astronauts can do a bit of mix and match, but that’s it.

In remarks before the gathering, Dr. Perchonok elaborated on the complicated dance between labor resources, equipment, food science and human nature.

The first few missions to Mars will be similar to the ISS, but the food is not the same [for an extended mission].

ISS only needs an 18 month shelf life. A Mars mission would require 5-7 years. For a crew of six, you would need 24,000 pounds of packaged food.

The bottom line is that a permanent colony on Mars requires some form of farming on Mars.

Dr. Perchonok foresees starting with hydroponics, which would yield some fresh color and texture to provide a psychological impact as well as nutritional benefits.

A second step would involve soybeans and other commodity crops, though that would require additional equipment for processing — which would have to be schlepped in from Earth.

Relatedly, a third step would bring in 3-D printing to enable variety in presentation among other uses.

As for animal protein, farm fishing would eventually make an appearance — along with more equipment.

Cultured meat is also a possibility, though Dr. Perchonok cautions that today’s systems are too resource-intensive for Mars application.

Ron Howard (You Know Who)

Mars Director and Producer Ron Howard also spoke to the gathering, so he gets the last word:

Mars is about experimentation and risk.

Today there is far more serious science and thought about the human experience and what it would take to get to Mars.

We asked the question, “What if we really tried to do a great science fiction show informed by this research, so people know that it’s serious, and know that it’s plausible.”

We learned a lot in Season 1 but we wanted to take it farther and understand it better. So, for Season 2 we bet more on the characters and the human interest side, and we found documentary stories to support that.

Got all that? Check out Mars Season 2 and let us know what you think in the comment thread.

Special bonus for all you Elon Musk fans: yes, his fingerprints are all over Mars.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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