FIFTY YEARS AGO this summer, three men strapped themselves to a rocket and traveled some 237,000 miles to the moon. Lynn Rothschild, meanwhile, was away at summer camp in Maine, and 12 at the time. “One of the counselors realized that it was going to be one of the great moments for mankind,” she recalls of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. “We all huddled around a little black-and-white TV. I must’ve stayed up until 2 in the morning.”
The experience sparked Rothschild’s interest in space. She went on to earn a doctorate in molecular and cell biology at Brown, then joined NASA in 1987. As a leading astrobiologist, she’s helping the agency tackle some of the biggest challenges in its goal to take humans beyond the moon to Mars by the 2030s.
The project, which began in 2011, is less a giant leap for mankind than an Evel Knievel–like jump across a canyon. “Going to Mars is really the ultimate field trip,” Rothschild tells me one day at NASA’s Ames Research Center, a sprawling 500-acre facility in Silicon Valley, replete with the world’s largest wind tunnel and a complex for testing spacecraft heat shields. No disrespect to the Apollo 11 crew, she adds, but “if you’re going to the moon, you could pack peanut-butter sandwiches.” A trip to Mars, on the other hand, will require that Rothschild and her team—composed of four postdoctoral fellows and a rotating crew of undergrads—harness the power of biology to try something considerably more ambitious.
The Apollo 11’s mission to the moon lasted eight days, while a trip to Mars will take about six months, one-way. Once there, the astronauts will stay for about eight months before heading home—meaning they’ll need to bring at least two years’ worth of supplies, plus fuel, transportation, and living quarters. The catch: Given the extreme expense of rocketing materials into space (an object the size of a can of Coke costs about $10,000 to launch into low orbit), the astronauts won’t be able to schlep enough cargo to survive, let alone establish a settlement. “If you don’t have what you need,” Rothschild says, “you’d better be able to do without it.”
That, or you better be able to grow it—which is where her team comes in.
Rothschild leads me to a lab filled with freezers, incubators, centrifuges, and tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. In glass cases, glowing lamps bombard petri dishes with radiation. It’s here where a researcher named Tomasz Zajkowski spends his days making genetic-level tweaks to protein-producing bacteria. With a pipette, he transfers drops of microorganisms to petri dishes, then subjects them to temperatures, light, and soil samples that mimic the conditions on Mars, to see how they fare. In time, the team aims to alter fungi and other organisms so that they thrive in space and can help sustain life untethered from Earth. That way, one day astronauts will be able to travel with small batches of modified cells and, once on Mars, grow them into organisms that can be turned into both supplies and food.
The astronauts could use fungi, for one, as “ink” in specialized 3D printers to make parts and tools. Or they could use genetically engineered spider silk to make fiber-optic cables or super-strong spacesuits. Building materials partially made of fungi could even absorb radiation and synthesize it into fuel or food—an idea that’s within the reach of reality. Based on tests done by one researcher, ionizing radiation not only doesn’t damage fungi, it can actually also feed them.
Rothschild admits that some of the concepts that her team is exploring sound cribbed from science fiction, but she contends that none of them are as far-fetched as they seem. Her team and another researcher have already made headway in using mycelium, a hairlike root found in mushrooms, to make glues, water filters, building boards, and 2x4s. “The field,” she says, “is moving so quickly.”
ONE OF THE MOST crucial areas of Rothschild’s work, aside from equipping astronauts with tools and supplies, centers on developing a self-sustaining base that astronauts can inhabit long-term. Again, the catch is that it’s not economically feasible to ship a prefabricated base some 33.9 million miles.
Fungi might solve this problem, too. Rothschild’s team is considering a proposal by Christopher Maurer, an architect with the firm Redhouse Studio, to apply their research in designing a Mars habitat. Based on current plans, a lightweight, flexible plastic shell will be built on Earth; folded up and tightly sealed, not unlike a camping tent; and then rocketed to Mars ahead of the astronauts. Once the shell arrives, dehydrated fungi and algae in the walls will expand, unfolding the base, as if it were a self-inflating kids’ bouncy castle. The wall fungi will also insulate the structure against Mars’ –80-degree lows. The habitat will be stocked with items that the astronauts need—pots, pans, cooktops, sinks, toilets—and include a circulatory system that will generate oxygen and convert radiation into heat and electricity.
Functionality is essential, without a doubt. But with the base being so far from Earth, the astronauts will also need to feel at home in it—a cramped tin can, like the one Buzz Aldrin and Co. took up, won’t do. In renderings, the inside of the Mars habitat looks as sleek as an Apple Store, with a sectional sofa made partly of fungi, a TV, private bedrooms, and a gym area. The objective, Maurer tells me, is for the astronauts, after completing the six-month trip to the planet, to “get off the ship, go through the loading dock, and climb into bed.”
A potential hiccup is that Mars has much higher levels of radiation than Earth, which poses a serious health risk to astronauts. Designs of the past have addressed the problem by placing the habitat underground. But “if you can’t look out the window, why go?” Maurer asks. This isn’t just an aesthetic concern. “People on these missions are already going to be taxed physically by the trip,” he says. “The psychological reality of being millions of miles away from home—it’s unheard-of at this point.” The team hopes that fungi will provide a solution, and Maurer remains optimistic that the proposed habitat concept will be ready within 10 years—an ambitious goal, to be sure.
Other concerns extend beyond the astronauts. Rothschild says that, in colonizing Mars, NASA will need to ensure that it doesn’t inadvertently kill whatever organisms, small as they may be, that might already live on the planet. “If we brought a life-form that immediately wiped out what was there,” she says, “it would be an enormous tragedy, scientifically.”
Perhaps the biggest obstacle moving forward, though, is not scientific in nature but political. Whenever a new presidential administration assumes power, NASA’s priorities tend to shift, oscillating between the moon and Mars, with funding following suit. Moreover, there are people within NASA, Rothschild says, who are uneasy about the prospect of relying on biology to make life on Mars sustainable, as opposed to nonliving hardware that has clear “on/off switches.” These skeptics, she says, “are better than they were 12 years ago, but they’re still nervous about this.”
Rothschild is undeterred, and insists that the science is advancing quickly. “It’s hard to say what the limits are,” she says. Whatever form the mission to Mars ultimately takes, it will no doubt bear little resemblance to those in NASA’s past. Still, some things will remain constant. Should Rothschild ever make the trip, “I imagine I would, like the Apollo astronauts, want to go outside first thing,” she says. “We’re all curious about our environment. That’s part of what makes us human.”
This story appears in the July/August 2019 issue of the magazine.