Arthur C. Clarke and other sci-fi writers on growing food to feed space colonists.

Sci-Fi Writers’ Amazing Old Ideas About Growing Food in Space

Sci-Fi Writers’ Amazing Old Ideas About Growing Food in Space

The citizen’s guide to the future.
June 21 2012 1:36 PM

Beyond Astronaut Ice Cream

How sci-fi writers like Arthur C. Clarke imagined we would feed space colonists.

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As Bourland breaks it down in The Astronaut’s Cookbook, which he co-authored with Gregory L. Vogt, you can divide space munchies into six different types:

  • Rehydratable food: food that has had the water extracted on Earth, and added in space
  • Thermostabilized food: heat-processed food that comes in cans or flexible pouches, similar to MREs
  • Intermediate moisture foods: dried peaches, pears, beef—basically anything with 15 to 30 percent water
  • Natural-form foods: nuts, granola bars, M&Ms, and other food ready to eat in flexible packages
  • Irradiated meat: beefsteak, fajitas, breakfast sausage—meat that is cooked and sterilized by a radiation zap
  • Condiments: ketchup, mustard, mayo, and hot sauce

That’s all well and good for the journey—in fact, it doesn’t sound too different from airplane meals. But should man colonize Mars, as SpaceX’s Elon Musk hopes to do by 2033, we’ll probably need to be able to grow food. Interestingly, many researchers see the developments of agriculture in space as part of a natural human progression into the unknown. A 2002 paper in the journal Advances in Space Research notes, “The process of adaptation to new environments will be no different than what farmers have done in the past as new environments on Earth were colonized.”

To cook up space food of the future, would-be explorers are of course cognizant of the space food of fiction. For decades, writers and artists have been dreaming up ways to feed those living full-time in space.


Curious children shuffling through libraries in the 1980s may have gotten their introduction to space food of the future from the 1982 book The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog: A Book About Your Future (underline in the original). It promised that things will be just a little bit shinier, just a little bit more amazing. Typical of its rosy futurism was an interview with a space farmer … of the year 2012!

Q: At lunch today, the waiter told us that all the food on the menu was produced here on Island One. Do you import any food from Earth?

A: No, it's too expensive. We raise every bit of food for all 10,000 of our citizens right here on this farm.

Q: You must have a very large area under cultivation?

A: Not really. We can grow all the food necessary to support one person in an area just 6 1/2 ft. long and 6 1/2 ft. wide. The entire farm takes up just 100 acres.

Q: How can you raise so much food in such a small space?

A: Well, for one thing, we raise most of our crops—hydroponically—in water instead of soil. That saves a lot of space because we can grow plants on tall vertical frames. Also, our farm produces food continuously—one crop after another, all year-round. It's always summer here, and we don't have any cloudy days or storms to contend with.

Q: Do you raise any animals?

A: Yes, they help us recycle leftovers. We raise our cows and goats almost entirely on corn stalks, cucumber vines and other crop wastes. Our chickens eat table scraps. Rabbits are our main sources of meat. They take up less space than hogs or cows and they need only half as much feed to produce a pound of meat. We also raise fish in those ponds over there.

Q: Where do you get the water for the fish ponds? 

A: All the water in the colony is used over and over again. Water for drinking and cooking comes from the farm's dehumidifiers, which pull moisture out of the air. Waste water is purified in a solar furnace and then piped back to the farm.

Q: Have you had any crop failures?

A: Not so far. When we started the farm, we inspected the shipments of plants and seeds from Earth very carefully to make sure they didn't contain any weeds or insects. Now our farm is pretty much pest-free.

Q: Do you miss your farm back on Earth?

A: Not a bit! I've even learned to like rabbit burgers!