Today, a half century after Neil Armstrong took one small step onto the surface of the moon, there are just three humans living in space: the crew of the International Space Station. But after decades of talk, government agencies and entrepreneurs are now drawing up more concrete plans to return to the moon, and even travel onward to Mars. Getting there is one thing, but if we plan to set up colonies, we’ll have to figure out how to feed ourselves. Will Earth crops grow in space—and, if so, will they taste different? Will we be sipping spirulina smoothies and crunching on chlorella cookies, as scientists imagined in the 1960s, or preparing potatoes 6,000 different ways, like Matt Damon in The Martian? Listen in this episode for the stories about how and what we might be farming once we get to Mars.
Space is harsh. We aren’t suited to the thinner atmospheres and lower gravitational pull of Mars or the moon, and without Earth’s atmosphere to protect us, cosmic rays could damage the structure of our cells, including our DNA. Plants, it seems, are a little tougher than humans when it comes to adapting to the rigors of alien worlds: According to the NASA scientist Ray Wheeler, scientists began sending algae into space in the 1950s, and since 2015, U.S. astronauts on the ISS have been able to enjoy the odd leaf of homegrown lettuce, thanks to the work of Wheeler’s Kennedy Space Center colleague Gioia Massa.