Look at a raw potato and you might visualize tater tots. Potato chips. French fries. A baked potato dripping with butter. The Martian character Mark Watney looks at one and sees survival.
Readers of Andy Weir’s The Martian, including those who have joined the currently running American Chemical Society (ACS) ChemClub virtual book club, will recognize the humble potato as a key plot item. It’s a major part of Watney’s saga to survive until a possible rescue from his predicament of being left for dead on the planet Mars. He calculates that his remaining food will not provide him with enough calories to last until rescue. (Watney “spares you the math” in the book, but you can do the math yourself with the Think Like a Scientist: Back of the Envelope Calculations handout from the virtual book club resource packet.) His solution is to turn his living space into the first Martian garden, using raw potatoes sent with his mission team to use for a Thanksgiving meal as his planting material. The challenges are many.
What are the chances for actually growing food on Mars, beyond the science-based fiction of the book? A view of the planet’s dry red landscape might suggest the chances are slim. Dig deeper into the issue using additional free resources from ACS.
ChemMatters is a magazine designed for high school students to help find connections between chemistry and the world around them. The most recent issue includes the articles “Growing Green on the Red Planet” and “Open for Discussion: Surviving on Mars.” The two pieces discuss the extreme conditions astronauts would face on Mars. Although “Growing Green on the Red Planet” states that it is the most habitable planet in our solar system besides Earth, humans (and any plants) would face extremely cold temperatures, an atmosphere of 95% carbon dioxide, a lack of readily available water, and less than ideal soil. The article also touches on plant growth experiments done on Earth using volcanic soil from Hawaii to simulate Martian soil.
Readers can also take advantage of two accompanying resources for “Growing Green on the Red Planet”: a Teacher’s Guide and Background Information. The Teacher’s Guide is packed with tools you can use with the article itself and extensions to take the article topic further. You’ll find an anticipation guide, student questions and answers, possible student misconceptions, links to lesson plans on the science of soil and the chemistry of fertilizer, and more. I found the beginning of the Background Information particularly interesting. It summarizes the spacecraft that have been used to study Mars and the resulting data/information obtained by each. The first was in 1964, and a future mission is in the works.
The ChemMatters site also highlights the video “Can We Grow Plants on Mars?” from D News. At three-and-a-half minutes, it could be a good way to kick off a discussion of the chances of Martian gardening.
Together, these free resources are ways to link science fiction from The Martian with real-life connections to Mars and its possibilities.
While reading The Martian, our ACS ChemClub book study selection, it amazes me how real the story seems, even though we know humans have yet to travel to the Red Planet. But after reading the book you may have wondered how likely it is for a real mission to take place, rather that the fictional Ares Program in The Martian.
It turns out NASA is already developing the capabilities needed to send humans Mars in the 2030’s, a goal outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010. And it is not just NASA doing the planning, they are also working with commercial and international partners to create the Global Exploration Roadmap, which lays out a shared vision for coordinated human and robotic exploration of our solar system. In March 2017, the president of the U.S. signed a new law authorizing a manned NASA mission to Mars.
The plans for exploring are complex and have many steps, but two big pieces of technology include NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket and Orion, a new generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into deep space.
The Orion Spacecraft will carry a crew of four. It is capable of missions as near as orbits around the earth to as far as Mars and beyond. Orion will have multiple uses, from transporting crew and supplies to the International Space Station to exploring deep space. NASA’s current goal is to have Orion operational by 2021.
The Space Launch System is classified as a super-heavy launch lift vehicle. It initially will be able to carry 70 metric tons of payload into Earth orbit. Upgrades in years to follow will double this capacity. The first version is scheduled to launch in 2018.
The next step in going to Mars is to build the Deep Space Gateway and the Deep Space Transport. The Deep Space gateway will be like a small version of the International Space Station but will orbit around the moon. This will serve as an assembly station and rest stop for astronauts headed for Mars. It will have several docking ports and room to amass supplies and equipment.
The Deep Space Transport is a reusable spacecraft that will be stationed at the Gateway and will depart from there. After traveling to Mars it will return to the gateway for service and refitting and another mission. Other than landing humans on the surface of Mars and returning them safely, other details of the first mission to Mars are still in development.
And if you still think this sounds like science-fiction, consider that NASA has designed a series of posters to recruit the next generation of deep space voyagers! Although they are not quite ready to accept applications, they are definitely getting the word out that the future is real.
If you have any comments or questions about plans to travel to Mars, share your thoughts with us in the comment section and on Facebook or Twitter using #ACSChemClubBook.
Don’t forget, about the resource packet for the ChemClub Virtual Book Club, including the two contests that are still open: