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Surviving only on potatoes on Mars is not possible

Posted February. 20, 2021 07:08,   

Updated February. 20, 2021 07:08


In the movie “The Martian,” its protagonist Mark Watney survives on potatoes grown in his own feces on Mars. It shows that agriculture, which is the origin of human civilizations, is possible on the barren planet where a small hole in a spacesuit will lead to death. As long as the food issue is resolved, human residence on Mars would no longer be just a dream.

However, a writer who used to work as an astronomy writer of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says otherwise. He says it is not possible to survive only on potatoes on Mars. He argues that potatoes cannot grow in the Mars soil, which contains perchlorate. Even if the toxin is removed, potatoes cannot provide sufficient nutrients. From the medical perspective, subsisting on potatoes will cause night blindness, rickets, nerve damage, frequent bruises, and others due to vitamin deficiency. If Watney had grown sweet potatoes, he would have been able to get twice as many nutrients as potatoes.

As the book title “Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond” suggests, it analyzes in detail the practical difficulties of space travel based on scientific and economic facts.

The book indeed breaks the rosy picture of space travel, the most represented by SpaceX led by Elon Musk. For example, in the 1960s to 1970s when an intense space war was taking place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. government tried to carry out Mars exploration before the end of the 20th century. However, it is still out of reach for humans even in the 21st century. Why is that?

The writer says the political and economic situations of the real world had an immense impact on space travel. For example, after witnessing the explosion of Apollo’s oxygen tank, former U.S. President Richard Nixon was going to cancel the launch plans of Apollo 16 and 17 in 1972 before the presidential election. He was concerned about the potential negative impact of the incident on his election.

However, the writer did not completely deny the possibility of space travel by adding that if China announced a plan to build settlements on Mars by 2032, the U.S. will mobilize funds to build one way or the other by 2031.

Sang-Un Kim sukim@donga.com