Written by Joelle Renstrom | Illustrations by Mellin Paulo Bernardo
Produced by ZillaMunch
It might seem strange, but I often forget I'm on Mars. There are no windows in my sleeping dome, and as I fall into bed, it might be any other night on Earth. It isn't until I awake to see my spacesuit and helmet that I remember where I am and what waits outside the door. In the mornings, it all comes flooding back— slowly watching the Earth shrink to the size of a marble, the seven months cooped up in a space shuttle, arriving here on the red planet, and sometimes even waiting for little green creatures to appear. The reality of what it takes to survive here.
With the Arctic temperatures, harsh solar radiation, and lack of oxygen and air pressure, we can't spend time outside unprotected. Our suits help keep us fairly warm, and, for the most part, the dust storms aren't as bad as I'd feared. Mars has a few big dust storms a year—and I'm talking big, like the size of Europe—and they can last for weeks. Sometimes these massive storms cover the entire planet, with winds reaching nearly 60 mph. Fortunately, that doesn't feel as strong as 60 mph on Earth given the lack of atmospheric pressure. So far, our equipment and homes have been able to withstand these storms, and it's unlikely any of us are going to get stranded. (Knock on…Mars rock?) The biggest problem with the wind is the dirt it kicks up onto our solar and navigation panels. We have all gotten pretty used to dusting!
My favorite part so far is how light I feel on Mars. Even in this spacesuit, I feel like I'm skipping along the ground. I can move so quickly and feel like a superhero lifting objects I'd struggle to heft on Earth! One of these days, I'll see just how far I can throw something. The downside is decreased gravity (38% of Earth's) tends to wreak havoc on our bodies. It weakens our immune systems, we lose bone mass, and our muscles atrophy.
Plus, we are more exposed to cosmic radiation. All of this speeds up aging and the diseases that come with it. But if there's one thing I have faith in, it's human ingenuity. After all, here we are on Mars! Our life support systems provide oxygen, remove carbon dioxide and other chemicals, control temperature and humidity, and pull moisture from the soil and atmosphere to process into potable water.
Our nutritionists designed individual eating plans for us, consisting of three full meals and one or two snacks a day so we get the vitamins and nutrients we need. We are required to intake between 1,900-3,200 calories, depending on gender and weight. Fat delivers the highest bang for the buck at roughly 3,850 calories per pound. Protein is particularly important to prevent malnutrition, as well as energy and muscle loss. Our diets are rich in vitamin D, since it and calcium help mitigate bone loss. (There's no chance of us getting our D naturally, since we can't be out in the sun on Mars.) At the same time, we have to be careful with our iron intake. The lower gravity causes us to lose red blood cells, which releases extra iron in our systems. We have to watch our salt intake as well. Too much can cause dehydration, kidney stones, and calcium loss.
But we do love our spices! I put hot sauce on pretty much everything. The low-pressure environment here makes strong flavors more appealing because the less oxygen we have in our blood, the less we're able to smell and taste. Being cooped up in small spaces for long periods of time reduces our sense of smell—kind of like when you get used to the smell of gym shoes in your locker. One of the biggest problems for us is getting bored with the food we eat. If we get sick of our food options, we don't eat as much and risk weight loss and malnutrition. So not only do we have to keep eating, but we have to make sure it's enjoyable. That means we have to get in the kitchen and whip up some culinary magic with spices.
Of course, to survive here long term we have to grow our own food. The Martian soil is able to support plants. It is alkaline (with a pH around 7.7, similar to baking soda), and contains minerals such as magnesium, chloride, sodium, and potassium. It lacks nitrogen, though, so we had to bring some with us in order to give our plants a boost. Another problem is that Martian soil contains a molecule called perchlorate, which messes with the body's metabolism and thyroid function. It could affect mood, appetite, sleep, and energy levels. Fortunately, our warm and moist greenhouse allows bacteria to break down perchlorate in the soil before we use it for growing.
Obviously, we can't just grab a trowel, put on some gloves, and plant a garden outside. The red planet is cold, windy, dry, and exposed to far too much solar radiation to grow crops outdoors. The only viable way to grow food is indoors, where we can control moisture, temperature, light, and radiation. Our Martian greenhouse protects the plants from solar radiation by using a radiation-shielding plastic dome. Solar panels heat the greenhouse and we pull water from the soil. There are systems for water reclamation, temperature control, oxygen storage, and pressurization. We are still figuring out the ideal balance for the inside of the greenhouse. The low pressure causes some plants to dehydrate rapidly even with regular watering, and it slows their growth. It's also possible to boost plant growth with extra carbon dioxide, which is abundant on Mars. Our robot gardeners do a lot of the work here: tends to the plants, monitors the greenhouse conditions, and sends information back to a control point.
While it might be tempting to sit back and let robots do all the work, they aren't meant to replace humans. Sure, if we're off on a mission or can't tend to the plants for a few days, the robots are great, but we all love interacting with the plants. They're like our children! We feel an amazing sense of accomplishment when they grow big and strong, and tending to them makes us feel less isolated and more connected to other living things, especially our home planet. Turning a little bit of the red planet green makes us all happier.
One of our main crops are potatoes. They are hardy, keep well, and are relatively nutritious. (Plus, who can resist mashed potatoes, even in space?) Spinach is another particularly good crop, as it contains more nutrients than any other vegetable. We also grow carrots, tomatoes, asparagus, green onions, radishes, alfalfa, wheat, rye, bell peppers, mushrooms, and strawberries, as well as greens such as lettuce, cabbage, and herbs. Eventually, we'll try to grow bigger plants like bamboo that we can use for building supplies. We also grow rice, peanuts, and beans in our hydroponic lab, which has similar systems as the greenhouse and fans to keep down the humidity. One advantage of a hydroponic lab is that plants can be grown vertically to take up less space.
We do need some kind of animal food source here on Mars. For now, our silkworm and cricket farms are filling the need. Fried or boiled silkworms are a popular treat in China, Vietnam, Korea, and now Mars. They're a little bitter, juicy, and full of protein. Their silk could be useful as well. Crickets, boiled and then sautéed, are a tasty snack loaded with protein and a bit of fat. How about cricket flour biscuits, anyone?
We're also farming fish. Tilapia is hardy and can survive on very little oxygen. Their water just has to be kept at a consistent temperature. We might try bringing in frogs or guinea pigs at some point, too. It's unclear exactly what toll Mars' gravity would take on the animals, their ability to reproduce, and their offspring's chances for survival. There is so much to learn!
On the space station, crumbs and powders wreak havoc on the various systems because there is no gravity and everything floats. Fortunately, Mars has gravity (even if only about a third of Earth's) and I can cook without making a mess. But we won't be hosting barbecues anytime soon, nor can we deep-fry anything. The risk of oil splatter is too high, and it's hard to get the oil hot enough here anyway. (Soggy fried foods are the worst!) We use the convection oven to make breads and pizza, and we can pan fry and sauté foods. Mars' low pressure causes water to either freeze or boil almost instantly outside, but in our pressure- and temperature-controlled kitchen we can boil spaghetti, rice, and potatoes. Water boils at around 10 degrees Celsius, which means cooking takes longer, but time is one thing we have plenty of on Mars. We have been experimenting with recipes to make sure we avoid the dangers of food boredom. Some of our favorites are quiche muffins, Moroccan beef tagine, and lemon dill pasta salad. Thank you for the suggestions, HI SEAS!
Our 3D printer helps keep food more fun as well. Yesterday, it took about 7 minutes to 3D-print a pizza. We've been able to grow meat tissue from stem cells in our lab and my project today is to use that to try to print *ahem* steak. I wonder if anyone would notice the difference?
Cooking our meals takes more time and energy, but there is so much more variety and it never gets boring! We all love the ritual of preparing food, which reminds us of home and family. Sitting around a table with all the teammates, eating a meal on plates sure beats slurping food from pouches. Bon appétit!