The Mars crew hadn’t had water, power or fuel for 24 hours. Communication was down, space suits needed to be repaired and life support systems were not functioning. But the beer? The beer was just fine.
Earlier this month a team of scientists and space enthusiasts locked themselves into the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a simulated Red Planet base in Hanksville, Utah. The base is one of four in the world run by the Mars Society, a nonprofit that wants humans to settle on Mars. Thirteen crews of volunteers will rotate through the bases from November 2014 through May 2015, helping advance the science still needed for colonization.
At the remote base in Utah, the seven surrogate astronauts were testing vital space research, such as emergency response procedures, extraplanetary terraforming and ballistic-launched aerial imaging. And, of course, how to brew beer on other planets.
“While there are many hurdles to overcome in the effort to colonize Mars, we think the ability to enjoy a cold beer might just make the trip a little more appealing,” says crewmember Kellie Gerardi, who works for a rocket company.
One thing scientists know for sure is that if humans are going to build an outpost on another planet, they will need to grow lots of crops there. “For an early colony, you’ll want to duplicate as many Earthly staples as possible, for comfort and for diversity,” Gerardi says. “Hemp would be another good, useful crop, but that’s a different story altogether.”
For the crew’s crop experiment, they skipped the controversial hemp and went for sorghum seeds and hops. “The academic defense was that sorghum is a grain of high nutritional value with relatively low water needs, and the hops plant is used as a medicinal herb,” Gerardi says. “The real reasoning was they’re two ingredients in beer, and if we prove germination and root establishment in the Mars soil, we have essentially proved that one can produce beer on the Red Planet.”
They grew two sets of plants for the proof of beer study, control plants in Earth dirt and the others in simulated Mars dirt (Hawaiian dirt that has a similar chemical composition to Martian surface samples).
The lab’s results were surprising: The plants in the Martian soil grew faster and larger than their counterparts in the Earth soil. The seven-man team, Crew 149, now has the distinction of being the first researchers to have academically proven that beer can be produced on Mars. They will write up their results for publication in a scientific journal in the coming months.
The only downside to the MDRS experiment was that the scientists did not have enough time to convert the plants into beer before their two-week rotation was over. (They did, however, bring some sorghum-based beer into MDRS and drank it to celebrate their success.) Gerardi will repeat the growth experiment on Earth and then home-brew the results. “A bottle of Martian beer might make a fun Christmas present for my colleagues,” she says. “My favorite part of the research will always be the sampling of the product.”
But growing and brewing beer on Mars isn’t just practical. It’s a bargaining chip. “If we truly want to democratize access to space, and incentivize people to take an interest in space activities, then we need to do everything in our power to make it more appealing,” Gerardi says. “I see a future where space settlement isn’t a sacrifice – it’s an opportunity.”
An opportunity that even beer geeks could get behind.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep