Mac Campus & the Future of Space

By Christopher Patterson

Chris Art (Photo by Miriam Espacio from Pexels).jpg

“The future seems bright for humanity’s conquests in the cosmos; we are quite literally on the doorstep of leaving our world.”

Wood Engraving (Paris: Hetzel. n,d) Circa [1846]

Wood Engraving (Paris: Hetzel. n,d) Circa [1846]

The International Space Station (ISS) orbiting 400 to 440 km from earth's surface. Circa [present day]

The International Space Station (ISS) orbiting 400 to 440 km from earth's surface. Circa [present day]

Those familiar with Andy Weir’s The Martian will know that it tells the story of Mark Watney, a botanist turned astronaut struggling to survive on Mars after a disaster leaves him marooned on the Red Planet. Apart from being millions of kilometers from home, Mark’s biggest struggle is lack of food and the threat of starvation, so he immediately begins growing potatoes in his base to sustain himself, earning him the title of “space farmer”…

Although The Martian is, by all accounts, a work of science fiction, the topics it presents are deeply rooted in reality. Campaigns for colonization of the Moon and Mars are scheduled to begin within the next decade, and one of the main issues space agencies must address is food security for its astronauts and eventual colonists. Currently, humanity’s only space-faring outpost, the International Space Station (ISS), receives regular resupply missions from the ground roughly once every four to six months. This is only possible because the ISS is parked in an orbit so close to Earth that if our planet were the size of a beach ball, the station would correspondingly orbit at an altitude of about a centimeter above the surface. Unfortunately, future missions intent on colonization will take place much further away, and therefore won’t be able to rely on the regular restocking of supplies  that we have become accustomed to; we will have to create our own resources to be self-sustaining. This is where the work of people like nutritionists, dietitians, and specialized engineers will come into play. These disciplines will become essential in not only the success of these missions, but also the survival of generations of future colonists.

In order to adequately sustain a spacecraft designed for interplanetary transport (known as a Martian Transit Vehicle or MTV), food and other life support systems must be fully optimized. It is theorized that this could be done by carefully planning the diets and nutritional requirements of the crew, and by designing advanced systems that produce foods capable of meeting these strict demands. Currently, research is being conducted by a variety of engineering teams to determine:

  • Which crops will best provide the Astronauts with adequate sustenance?

  • How to optimize the lighting provided to the crops to increase yield?

  • How to optimize water- and nutrient-delivery systems in a microgravity environment?

  • How to properly store and preserve harvests to increase food security on-board?

Although these technologies are in their infancy, promising developments have been made suggesting that these systems could provide enough food to make deep space missions possible in the near future. The ISS itself already has several microgravity growth chambers on-board,  contributing to the advancement of research on these topics. Apart from the scientific imperative however, the growth chambers have also provided an unexpected result: Astronauts tending to the growth chamber experiments reported feeling more at ease and fulfilled, and said that it was among their favorite activities on the station. Astronauts Scott Kelly and Peggy Whitson were especially vocal about their fondness for the plant chambers and have become fierce advocates for their continued use on-board. The astronauts have since insisted that from this point on, every spacecraft/station must have these chambers on-board, and NASA has even gone so far as to make it an official mandate for all future missions. This means that until a spacecraft is fitted with a plant chamber, it will not be cleared for launch.

Life needs to spread beyond this world, because there can always be another catastrophic event that will end life here as we know it now. … Exploration has to continue so that we can continue. Philosophically … it’s important that we expand.
— Peggy Whitson, Astronaut

The future seems bright for humanity’s conquests in the cosmos; we are quite literally on the doorstep of leaving our world and setting up colonies on other planets and moons. Soon, our children and grandchildren may very well be able to look up at the Moon and see lights from these colonies shining back down at them. All of these facilities with their crews cannot be driven without these tremendous advancements in agricultural and nutritional technology, which will ensure humanity’s survival for generations to come…