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USU’s Space Crop Expert Separates Fact from Fiction on Farming in Space

Bruce Bugbee

Professor Bruce Bugbee’s job title, director of Utah State University’s Crop Physiology Laboratory, conjures thoughts of a scientist whose work is firmly rooted in the earth. Rooted in the earth on Earth, that is. But for the past 33 years, the majority of Bugbee’s research has focused on how to grow food in space.

The book and now major movie The Martian makes growing food in space, or more precisely, on Mars key to the hero’s survival. As sci-fi fans head to theaters to see how fictional astronaut Mark Watney figures out how to survive, Bugbee has been busy explaining some of the finer points of the science of growing plants in space to reporters and examining what the story gets right and where it’s more fiction than science.

Fielding questions from journalists and writing invited guest commentaries isn’t the usual day’s work for the Department of Plants, Soils and Climate faculty member, but Bugbee considers it part of his job as an educator.

“Every decade or so a science fiction story ignites the collective imagination for what might be, Bugbee said.  “The Martian is one of those stories.  It speaks to the fundamental satisfaction of growing our own food: in gardens, on rooftops, and in our living rooms in the winter. I am fortunate to be working with NASA on the challenges of food production in space.  It’s a topic that engages intellects and inspires people to become more food self-sufficient.”

After reading the book that inspired the movie, Bugbee observed, “Mark Watney would have benefitted from taking a few courses in USU’s Department of Plants, Soils and Climate– Soil Science 3000, for example. Watney figured he needed to add 40 liters of water per cubic meter to powder dry Martian soil and that would be enough to grow potatoes. This equates to less than three tablespoons of water to a liter of dry soil. Soils need five to eight times this much water for productive crop production. But don’t get hung up on the errors.  Correct them with a green pen and enjoy the science fiction.” 

National and International Media Mentions

Read about where Bugbee and others say The Martian gets the science right and wrong in coverage from around the world.

Writer: Lynnette Harris, USU, 435-797-2189 (office), 435-764-6936 (cell), lynnette.harris@usu.edu