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The Milk House: Inter-planet ag

Ryan Dennis Published on 17 April 2015

Hollywood is a $500 billion industry that, among other things, makes a profit from combining two seemingly un-joinable things: Cowboys and Aliens. Sharknado. Beverly Hills Cop. Part of my academic research is considering farming narratives in their various forms. This led me to another odd couple: agriculture and space.

In The Astronaut Farmer (1996), Billy Bob Thornton has a large rocket he’s determine to ride to the moon – in spite of being in danger of losing the farm to the banks. When he was younger, he was in training for the space program, but life had other plans.

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I won’t spoil the ending, mostly because I can’t: It was so bad I turned it off after the first half-hour and spent the rest of the time reflecting on the financial troubles Billy Bob must have been in to sign on for such a project.

Interestingly enough, Hollywood wasn’t done with the concept. Interstellar, released this year, features a frustrated Matthew McConaughey who was also decommissioned from a space program and forced to grow corn on the dying Earth. In a twist of fate, the farmer is sent out into the universe to find a planet that is habitable for humans.

Recently, the Mars One project reduced the pool of candidates it will send to live permanently on Mars from 200,000 to 100. Four of them will be given the chance to start a human settlement on another planet in 2025. Suddenly, it seems like a lot of science-fiction movies are coming true.

With an unbreathable atmosphere, harsh winds and temperatures that drop to -275ºF, these four pioneers will live in condensed habitat modules and will require a space suit to go outside into the barren landscape. The mods will be connected, with separate spaces to grow food and house spare parts.

Mars One envisions sending four new people every two years, along with additional parts needed for the civilization. Being a pioneer in space, however, is not without sacrifice. The seven-month, 140-billion-mile trip comes with a catch: You can never come back. Currently, the technology does not exist to bring a person back from Mars.

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A recent analysis by MIT suggests that the first person will die before 10 weeks. Running models based on current technology and Mars One assumptions, the feasibility of the project as it stands now has been called into question. The habitat mods are not air-tight and inevitably leak. Without a source of internal nitrogen to maintain proper pressure, MIT reports state the mission members will begin to suffocate after 68 days.

Establishing a sustainable agricultural system is also at the heart of the concern. Not only does MIT predict that four times as much space is needed to grow sufficient vegetables, but the excess of oxygen produced by the plants will eventually reach poisonous levels and pose a fire hazard.

These calculations say nothing about the mental stress of being one of only four people who exist on an empty planet. Still, the general consensus of doubt has not dampened the enthusiasm of the currently 100 people receiving space training at a facility in Utah.

Judging by the reaction of both the scientific and lay community, it’s fairly assumed these people are going to die. The other surreal component of the story is this: We’re going to be able to see it all.

In order to help fund the massive endeavor, the CEO of Mars One is selling the television rights to a Dutch production company to create the most extensive reality show in history. All of Earth will be watching human civilization attempting to establish itself on another planet.

As is perhaps somewhat inevitable for a project of such groundbreaking magnitude, it draws together a lot of central themes regarding what we are as a civilization and what we will be in the future. In some ways, Mars One represents the human spirit of innovation and ambitions to break boundaries through the union of technology and determination.

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I have often suspected there could be life on other planets but did not think we would be the ones to put it there. On the other hand, it feels like a condemning example of our obsession with reality TV finally reaching the extremes of finding entertainment in what will likely be watching real-life people suffer and perish.

In Interstellar, civilization is forced to seek other planets in order to keep the human race alive because the earth has been ruined. Some scientists are viewing the research conducted by the Mars One project in the same light. There’s an inherent morality tale concerning how hard it will be to start life again in another planet and the need for sustainable practices on this one.

I don’t know what type of candidates the four Martians will be, but their survival will be based solely on the diversity of skills they have at hand to make their situation work – including those related to agriculture.

Admittedly, the more I read about the projected experience of these people, the more I instinctively drew parallels to farming back on Earth. Someone once told me that there are no such thing as mere farmers but rather people who are simultaneously engineers, electricians, accountants, laborers and entrepreneurs at once – as is required by the act of farming.

These four people are going to have to be pragmatic and use the things around them to get by. They’ll be living on tight margins, perhaps always on the brink of not making it. They’ll have to deal with an isolation inherent to the station they have chosen in life.

They won’t have vacations in the regular sense of the word, and what they do is meant to benefit mankind as a whole. With the exception of not getting kicked by first-calf heifers, life on another planet might not be that different from farming.

After expressing his exasperation in farming, Matthew McConaughey’s character gazes off into the distance and says, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” It’s hard to say what the next 10 years will bring. Whatever it will be, I hope we’re still looking in both directions, and happy with what we see. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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Ryan Dennis
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