Space farming would be a hugely important aspect of establishing a sustained human presence beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), on the Moon and Mars to begin with. To achieve this, scientists and astronauts have spent years trying to cultivate different species aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Recently, a NASA postdoctoral fellow at Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Christina Johnson, briefed on developments in space agriculture so far and also revealed what crops astronauts would grow on Mars.
What would we eat on Mars?
In the latest episode of NASA’s Gravity Assist podcast, Johnson said the plants most likely to be grown on Mars would be staple plants, which are eaten regularly and are an important part of a person’s diet. “Maybe we’re talking about rice, potatoes and sweet potatoes,” she said according to the podcast transcript. “Sweet potatoes are one of my favorites because you can also eat the leaves – the young leaves, which are really tasty.” Further mentioning her work on ginger flower development, she said that ginger is awesome and “we should definitely have it on Mars.”
(Christina Johnson works on plants in her lab at Kennedy Space Center; Image: Twitter/@ISS_Research)
According to Johnson, mizuna, a mustard plant, is one of the “workhorse plants” that has grown very well in space. Additionally, red romaine lettuce is another plant that grows well in space and tastes good because it has a neutral flavor, the expert said. “Astronauts can eat them right away. We call them ‘pick and eat’ cultures. They don’t have to do any prep,” she said. The latest breakthrough in space farming came late last year when astronauts were able to grow chili peppers on the space station as part of the Plant Habitat-04 (PH-04) experiment.
The challenges of space farming
The NASA expert also highlighted emerging challenges in space farming. She said that the lack of gravity, good air circulation and the right amount of sunlight pose the main challenges of space farming and these are the indispensable conditions that astronauts must ensure during the cultivation of crops. She further reasoned that for food security on the Moon, we would need additional food that would be regularly delivered from Earth. “It’s expensive. It’s hard. But it’s not impossible,” she said and as for Mars, growing staple crops would be the best option. Indeed, a one-way trip of several months to Mars would degrade the vitamins and the overall quality of the food transported.