Our vision for farming in space was well received by people at the Mars City Design competition; they were already dedicated to achieving space settlement. However, we recently spoke at an urban farming forum in Ireland where we found that some people are very incredulous about whether geeking out on all this space stuff is a good use of time and resources. A lot of Irish people that we spoke with expressed that they saw space exploration as merely a remnant of Cold War muscle flexing and doesn’t really serve any useful purpose to humanity. These people questioned whether it is wise to invest public funds into space exploration projects. They look at Mars and think:
“There can’t be anything for us in space. Look at the conditions compared to Earth: Mars is a hostile wasteland and where we live is already immediately habitable. Besides, there are a lot of problems on Earth that need to be addressed first. Our energy and resources should be directed towards improving conditions here, rather than wasted trying to figure out how to colonize other planets.”
I can see the validity in this argument. Indeed, space exploration is an extremely costly endeavor that currently yields no immediate benefits, beyond the philosophical joy of knowing that humans have accomplished something incredible. Currently, colonization of Mars will only be beneficial to future generations and this type of risk taking for the sake of potential altruism doesn’t really resonate with a lot of people. If we are to enlist the support of people with this point of view, we need to prove that research directed at space exploration has additional applications that are immediately beneficial to humanity. Fortunately, this research happens to be very applicable for resource conservation and sustainable agricultural issues facing humanity today.
Resource conservation is obviously a very fraught topic. It has been an uphill battle to get business and government on board for this much needed paradigm shift. This is where space colonization motivates us. The technology needed to survive and adapt to climate change is deeply lacking in funding and respect. However, space exploration is sexy and exciting. If people aren’t motivated by stewardship of their planet, then maybe we can motivate them to achieve conservation by harnessing the very powerful human drive for expansion. We can use the discoveries geared towards space exploration to inspire sustainable practices here on Earth.
Attempting to solve problems for closed-loop systems like a space station allows us to rethink conservation in a way that has not been necessary in our resource-rich past. By removing the idea that unlimited inputs from the Earth’s natural resources is a given, this forces us to design our food systems in a resource conservative manner.
In response to those who think that trying to get to Mars is a waste of energy, let me say this: think of how much better we will need to be at conserving energy to even get there. The constraints of living on a space station will force us to develop methods for extreme energy and resource conservation, and these techniques will undoubtedly have application on Earth as we inch closer to the end of the fossil fuel era.