When it comes to our modern, special effects–driven blockbuster movies, asking yourself, “Is this realistic?” is a surefire way to have a bad time at the multiplex. Still, while most moviegoers have accepted the benefits of suspending their disbelief, others can’t help but take a more analytical approach.
Take, for instance, The Martian, this weekend’s new Ridley Scott–directed sci-fi drama where a NASA astronaut played by Matt Damon has to survive on Mars by growing his own food (spoiler alert?). Which makes us think, is that even possible?
Well, Modern Farmer decided to investigate further and determine, “Can you really grow plants on Mars?” They spoke with Andy Weir, the author who wrote the book the movie is based on. Apparently, Weir did extensive research during his writing to try to keep his novel as accurate as possible.
Knowing that, you can probably guess Weir’s opinion on the question: Yes, just like in the movie, he believes that plants could be grown on Mars—though it’s more difficult than growing plants on Earth. “The main thing that’s not in Martian soil is a bunch of nutrients and biological materials that plants rely on to grow,” the author told Modern Farmer. “It’s not there because, obviously, there’s no life on Mars.” (Spoiler alert?)
To solve this problem, Damon’s character, Mark Watney, fertilizes the Martian soil with his own feces and the waste of his crewmates who abandoned him. Eating crops grown from human poop has its problems: specifically, human pathogens in our excrement. But Weir said he had this covered. When consuming your own waste, you are consuming your own pathogens, so you’re basically only getting the bad things you already have, which means you’re safe. Eating food grown from other people's waste takes a bit more of a tricky explanation (one that Weir said was in the book but glossed over in the movie). “The crew’s waste was all completely desiccated, freeze-dried, and then dumped out on the surface of Mars and bagged,” Weir says. “Any pathogens in there would have been dead.”
Modern Farmer brings up one other issue: the toxic perchlorates that have recently been discovered to be found in Martian soil. “You can literally just rinse them out of the soil,” Weir told them, hopefully with a bit of cocky swagger. “Wash the soil, soak it in water, and the water would wash the perchlorates away.”
So there you have it: Apparently, yes, you might be able to actually grow plants on Mars. Just in case, though, I’d suggest downloading a reliable Martian delivery app before you head out on your nine-month journey. How’s the Wi-Fi on Mars, Weir?