In real life, the furthest humans have been from Earth is the moon; all these questions about space agriculture are for hypothetical future travel. In fiction, of course, that is so very not the case.
Let’s take this opportunity to look at how science fiction people of the future farm (or don’t farm) their space food.
Star Trek totally cheats.
When you can just tell your food to the replicator and it appears, there is very little need for space agriculture. Though several of the Star Trek ships did have hydroponics gardens for fresh/fruit vegetables, they weren’t mandatory. Since hydroponics avoids the dirt question and gravity and lighting on Star Trek ships is pretty much like it is on Earth, there aren’t a lot of obvious challenges here.
B5 grows some of its own food in Red Sector, meaning the station can (at least theoretically) support itself. Of course, “supporting itself” and “having delicious food always available” are totally different: there’s bribery required to get the ingredients for bagna caude, illegal on-board coffee plants using up valuable station resources, and do you know how difficult it is to get eggs out there before they spoil?
Look! Gardens! Give them a break on the CGI, it was 1995.
Serenity, unlike the Star Trek and B5 ships, is a run-down civilian ship, not a big shiny military/government ship, and it isn’t big enough to have a garden; we (or at least I) don’t know a lot about the insides of the big ships owned by people with money. We do know that a crate of apples is generous (and, considering who it’s coming from, freaky).
There’s also such a thing as Nutrient Bars aka foodstuffs, which don’t seem promising as far as indicating the widespread presence of space agriculture.
Battlestar Galactica (new version)
Battlestar Galactica is a show so depressing that I stopped watching after about half a season, so I’m not surprised.
There’s also an episode that features crackers, which are only a very tiny step above the food cube.
We’ve now reached the limit of my easily accessible space TV knowledge, and so far the plants-in-space as food source has come down on the ‘no’ side. Most of these shows expect that the ships will be moving quickly and frequently between planets with food sources–so there’s no need for them to grow their own food.
We clearly won’t have that option, and we can’t really take the Star Trek route, either: the replicator is not, for example, in PC World’s Star Trek Tech We Use Today (Almost) list. The closest to what we have is Babylon 5, and B5′s pretty similar to Earth in regards to growing conditions; plus, as I mentioned, it’s supplied by off-station resources as well.
It’s interesting to think that as far as future space tech we apparently give so little thought to something as vital as food, though perhaps not surprising, given the handwaving approach often taken to other important basics like artificial gravity and faster-than-light travel. Unless your show is about launching interstellar travel for the first time, details like food supplies, which are presumably routine, aren’t terribly dramatic compared to, say, epic space battles.
But I think that interval between the first off-Earth/moon exploration and humans being all over the place while ships zoom around between them would be a cool place to explore (preferably on a ship featuring space farms).
And if I didn’t cover your favorite show’s space food… share with a writeup in the comments!
Back in the day, people thought the dark patches on the moon were bodies of water, which is why they’re called maria: pronounced mahr-ee-a, not like the name. ‘Maria’ is Latin for ‘seas.’ If there were big bodies of water on the moon, it’d be a lot easier to grow things there.
It’s not just an issue of the lack of carbon dioxide, which plants need in order to perform photosynthesis and sustain themselves. Earth’s atmosphere blocks a lot–a lot–of electromagnetic radiation; in fact, it takes out almost everything except a narrow window around the visible range of light, called the optical window, and another window in the radio range whose name you can probably guess. The atmosphere also blocks a lot of space debris from hitting Earth, since the debris generally burns up the atmosphere and can show up as a shooting star, or meteor. Most of the time, anyway; sometimes pieces of debris run into people’s stuff or largely obliterate the dinosaurs. The moon, lacking an atmospheric shield, would be more vulnerable to these impacts.
Given these problems, it will be tricky to grow food on the moon, especially on its surface.
Sure, you run into the where-does-the-sunlight-come-from problem again, but on the other hand, a plant can actually live there. The CEAC prototype, according to the press release, takes up eighteen feet of tunnel space but can be collapsed to just 4 feet for transport.
I hope you all had a mental image of a slinky just now.
The manufacturing company claims 10 minutes for setup and 30 days until vegetables, and when working:
The lunar greenhouse contains approximately 220 pounds of wet plant material that can provide 53 quarts of potable water and about three-quarters of a pound of oxygen during a 24-hour period, while consuming about 100 kilowatts of electricity and a pound of carbon dioxide.
It would also be growing the vegetables hydroponically, aka in water.
CEAC also designed a unit which is used to grow vegetables at the South Pole, so they have some experience with making greenery grow in inhospitable places. They’re applying for additional funding in hopes of carrying the experiment on to Phrase II.
One thing it’ll be interesting to see in the future is how the light-usage issue in space agriculture is handled. Plants are adapted to use the light available on Earth for photosynthesis, which in space wouldn’t necessarily be available- either because the plants themselves are literally shielded from the light, or because the light isn’t bright enough even if it is there. So will it be easier to engineer efficient lights to maintain the plants, or to engineer the plants to take advantage of efficient lights?