The systems approach is a powerful one. Different ideas from different disciplines can be plugged into a coherent structure, to test new combinations and look at how they can work. Professor Eldert van Henten highlighted this with examples of engineering solutions from aerospace being applied to agriculture.
The systems approach is universal, and a lot can be learned from stepping outside of one’s field. To improve conditions on Earth, we can look to the skies. Nevertheless, today’s article will be about something more explicitly linked to agriculture, albeit still in space.
The colonisation of Mars is a controversial project. People like Elon Musk say that it is the only way to save the human race from extinction. Others see it as a misprioritisation – a lofty goal not worth pursuing until conditions on Earth are satisfying for everyone.
This is a false dichotomy. Exploring space doesn’t bring development on Earth to a halt. On the contrary. By pursuing goals in space, we learn more about how to improve life on Earth.
A major challenge in colonising Mars is keeping the crew fed. This applies everywhere in space. On the ISS, the costs of delivering food from Earth range from $10 000 to $20 000 per kilo. And most of that ‘food’ is just packaging. There’s a huge need for developing life-support systems. In other words, we need to learn how to grow food in space.
This is one of the many reasons that the European Space Agency (ESA) started The Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) in 1989. MELiSSA aims to mimic ecosystems to feed the crew in a closed loop, which the crew is of course a part of. It’s a massive project involving 30 organisations across Europe, including one near me in Belgium.
Part of MELiSSA involves growing plants hydroponically. This was the topic of Professor Danny Geelen’s talk at the AVF’s Brussels Workshop.