Living on Mars may seem like a far-fetched, idealistic dream for sci-fi lovers, but the reality of a human mission to Mars is probably closer than we think. For example, SpaceX intends to launch a mission to Mars within the next decade, and NASA has plans to test deep space habitation facilities, with plans for a human-crewed surface landing on the red planet by 2030.
Both private and public interest groups have envisioned what a real mission to Mars would look like, including the details around what crops humans would require to survive. While Matt Damon’s character on the Martian may have survived off potatoes, such a scenario isn’t necessarily realistic. There are currently only ten crops which have passed a simulated Mars test, which means researchers have successfully grown these plants under Mars-like conditions here on Earth. The crops include tomato, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa, and chives. But, what about a more diverse crop; what about cannabis on Mars?
The Argument(s) for Cannabis on Mars
One problem for a manned Mars mission is that the early settlers will need access to basic medicines. Some estimates place the cost of a supply shipment from earth at $1 billion, which isn’t unrealistic considering the cost of the rocketry necessary to travel at least 56 million kilometers for delivery. Regular resupplies for the first settlement are simply not a feasible way to get medical care. Settlers will need to have the ability to produce their own supplies, including food and medicine.
Cannabis could offer a solution for many medical conditions and diseases. The surface conditions on Mars are expected to be grueling, including different atmospheric pressure, wind storms, shifts in gravity, and the daily grind of setting up and running a space-base so far from home. Cannabis is a primary candidate for the treatment of chronic pain, inflammatory diseases, mood disorders, and more here on Earth, so it would make a perfect candidate for the first natural medicine to go to Mars.
Marijuana plants are also highly adaptable, in size, chemical makeup, and yield. It’s a plant which is useful for so much more than medicine. Its seeds can be used for food and oil, and its fibrous stalk can be used as fuel or for rigging. All of these products could prove useful for early Mars settlers.
Cannabis cultivators are already pushing the limits of this adaptability on Earth in their drive to grow more productive cannabis, in increasingly smaller spaces. They have also been striving to improve consistency between crops by maintaining total control over environmental growing conditions. These are all considerations scientists are working on for growing crops in space.
A Canadian laboratory at the University of Guelph, Ontario is already working with Canadian Space Agency’s Long-Term Space Plan, NASA’s Advanced Life Support program, and European Space Agency’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative to design regenerative life support systems for long-term human missions in space. The laboratory is taking this technology and applying it to cannabis production. Self-contained and highly controlled cultivation is real, it’s just waiting for a move to outer space.
The Relationship Between Mars and Cannabis Cultivation
Mars settlers would likely benefit from an aquaponic setup like the one built by Green Relief, which is producing fish as well as cannabis in a closed loop system. Or they could use an aeroponic setup like the one used by GrowX, which was itself borrowed from NASA’s experiments in microgravity. Both the cannabis and space industries are pushing the boundaries of technology in their own ways, but there’s a lot they could learn from one another.
Many former NASA scientists are also making a small leap between industries, including the vice president of BIOS, Neil Yorio. He now develops specialty LED lighting for agricultural use based on his experience with the Bio Regenerative Life Support Systems developed for NASA. Furthermore, Wayland Group, a medical cannabis company, is also pulling in experience from former NASA researchers, adding Dr. Hans Dendl, a former researcher from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on to their advisory board. The potential for crossover between the industries is apparently already underway.
As the race to Mars continues at a pace similar to the competitive innovation going on in the cannabis sector, the “final frontier” still remains a regulatory one. Because Cannabis is still illegal in the US, all programs working in conjunction with NASA (a federal agency) are heavily restricted in their use of the plant.
That said, Space Tango is growing crops in tiny microwave-sized, climate-controlled tanks on the ISS, and they are now planning to grow hemp too. Before they can introduce THC-containing variants into the microgravity climate, and truly explore how cannabis works in space, US federal regulations must change to accommodate this experiment. But, with the US government recently asking for public comment on marijuana, and over 30 states with legal access to it, change is likely just around the corner. Cannabis might soon be growing legally across the country, and even in zero gravity.
Biosynthesis – The More Likely Scenario
Although researchers are learning about cultivation in outer space, the most likely future for cannabis in space is going to come from laboratories. Thanks to the process of biosynthesis, an enzyme-assisted process that will allow for the creation of cannabinoids in a laboratory, the possibility of cannabis-based medicines in space makes a lot of sense.
Using cannabinoid biosynthesis on Mars could allow for increased production of medical compounds at a significantly reduced cost, since scientists could skip the resource-heavy requirements for growing a plant. Essentially, technicians on Mars could create specific, pure cannabinoids on demand, without water, land, or electricity.
While it will likely be decades or even centuries before we see the colonization of Mars as depicted in a variety of different movies, it only takes a little imagination to visualize what the future holds. Imagine a strain of Mars OG actually created on Mars; or maybe the anti-gravity conditions will prove to have extraordinary cannabinoid yield, resulting in the development of anti-gravity growth chambers here on Earth? Only time will tell.
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About the Author
Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She personally found relief through cannabis for the treatment of her panic and anxiety disorder.