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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An article in the March/April 1988 issue of 21st Century magazine, which told the tale of a farmer on the moon in the on New Year’s Eve, 2019, takes a less optimistic view of the ease of raising animals in space. Authors Frank Salisbury and Bruce Bugbee imagine:

It’s time to go to the restaurant for the last lunar meal of 2019. The menu gives us choices for three days. We had to choose which day’s menu we wanted when we ordered breakfast, so that our diet is carefully balanced. The menus are impressive, considering that our colony is less than 10 years old and reached its originally assigned 100 occupants only about 5 years ago. Now, there are 250 people living here. We are all basically vegetarians, though not necessarily by choice!

Later, the article explains:

Growing food on the Moon is expensive for several reasons. For one thing, we can’t depend on light from the Sun as the source of energy for photosynthesis. The lunar night is nearly 15 Earth days long, and when the Sun shines it is difficult to use the sunlight directly to irradiate our crops. Even if an Earth-type greenhouse could be made leak proof, it could never contain an atmospheric pressure sufficient for both plants and the humans who take care of them.

As seen in this artist's rendering, astronauts exploring Mars will build hydroponic growth labs where vegetables can be grown.
As seen in this artist's rendering, astronauts exploring Mars will build hydroponic growth labs where vegetables can be grown. These crops will provide the crew with added nutrition and variety.



Arthur C. Clarke’s 1986 book July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century focuses on the same year as Salisbury and Bugbee’s piece. He predicts that food in space generally won’t be very palate-pleasing—not because the food is necessarily flavorless, but for a physiological reason.

Bonnie picked out several days of menus earlier in the week; now it’s easy to glide over to the galley and pull out the plastic tray. Back at her table, a place-setting is waiting for her, with magnets holding the silverware in place: a knife, fork, spoon, and pair of scissors. The scissors are for cutting open the ubiquitous plastic packs. In the middle of the table is a set of water nozzles resembling those used by dentists. She can reach for a nozzle on its hose, stick it into an opening in a plastic pack, then watch while the freeze-dried food soaks up the water. She has picked out a breakfast of thermostabilized peaches, freeze-dried scrambled eggs with sausage, rehydratable corn flakes with blueberries, and orange juice and coffee in plastic squeeze bottles.

The only trouble is that none of this is tasting very good. That isn’t because it has been dried and reconstituted; it’s because of the congestion in her sinuses. Weightlessness might fulfill the dream of effortless levitation and dreamlike flight, but it carries with it the continual feeling of a stuffed up nose.

This is a game we’re still playing. The May/June 2007 issue of Nutrition Today imagines what eating on Mars will one day look like:

Astronauts would require a balanced diet in both space and on the Martian surface and would need the energy and nutritional wherewithal to overcome the classic difficulties posed by the rigors of spaceflight especially loss of bone calcium and shielding from external radiation sources. In one scenario, nonmanned capsules would be launched to Mars in advance of astronaut liftoff to provide a “cache” of food and water for human use once the shuttle reached the planet. Proponents of the Manned Mars Mission state that once on the planet’s surface, fresh food could be available. They argue that it would be feasible to grow strawberries and raise rabbits and a host of other potential foods under controlled conditions.

One thread that goes through most of these depictions of our space-food future: We want to create mini-Earths wherever we go. Perhaps the April 30, 1961, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer shows this best. In a full-page article on “living in space,” a huge illustration shows a space colony inside of a hollowed-out asteroid. A tractor tills the soil. A boy catches a fish from a nearby pond. Three cows stand in the distance. Along the same lines, a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey shows three astronauts picking out sandwiches while commenting on how much better they taste than they once did. The simplicity of the sandwich let movie-goers place themselves in that scene—a sandwich, just like home.

Much as the 5-year-old in me still loves the idea of astronaut ice cream, there’s something tremendously comforting about the familiar terrestrial food of Earth. And one day, when I’m hopefully taking a short vacation on Mars, I suspect I’ll long for a sandwich. Just like Mom (or Mr. Kubrick) used to make.

Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; the United States and Europe switch perspectives on GMOs; celebrating the inevitable decline of the cookbook; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Matt Novak is a writer living in Los Angeles. He writes Smithsonian magazine's Paleofuture blog and is a contributing editor at the Futurist magazine.