This article originally appeared on Motherboard.
Jeff Raymond is still waiting for a call from NASA to invite him on an expedition to Mars. It’s not like he doesn’t have the credentials: the 38-year old is a former Air Force engineer, plus he has a passion project that really qualifies him for the job.
For over a year, Raymond and his wife have been running a fully operational, self-sustaining “Mars habitat” in their backyard. They’ve personally sunk around $200,000 USD into the project and anticipate spending several thousand more before they’re finished.
The habitat is the subject of a popular YouTube channel maintained by Raymond, where he essentially LARPs the 2015 Matt Damon film The Martian for an audience of over 20,000 loyal followers. Raymond and his wife have also successfully grown large crops of microgreens—small, nutrient-dense vegetables—that they hope will one day cover the costs of running the habitat. The end goal, however, is creating a replicable habitat that can be used by communities around the world for local, sustainable agriculture.
And still, NASA hasn’t called.
“I would love to have them come walk around and just explain what we’re doing here,” Raymond told me when we spoke on the phone recently. “It's going to be so extremely difficult to get enough food on Mars for everybody. There are a lot of questions there we need to solve, but I’d love to get that call to offer any help.”
NASA is well aware of the logistical challenges of growing vegetables off-planet, and has spent a significant amount of resources funding space farming experiments. Still, Raymond said it would behoove the agency to listen to the farmers, whose expertise in this area may be invaluable to future Martian colonists.
“This project has really opened my eyes to the lack of respect I had for the people who grow our food,” Raymond said. “The farming aspect is so difficult.”
Raymond’s interest in farming isn’t limited to the technical challenges of growing veggies on the Red Planet, however. Over the last five years, he became increasingly interested in living off-the-grid and creating a self-sustaining home on his ranch in Washington. He told me that during his research into sustainable homesteading, he came to learn a lot about the looming population problem and the food crises it will likely create.
Raymond realized that meeting this increase in food demand will require not only expanding food production, but ensuring these production practices are sustainable. He began experimenting with aquaponics systems, where the waste from live fish provides the food for plants and these plants in turn clean the water and provide nutrients for the fish. From there, Raymond’s Martian habitat was born.
The current design of Raymond’s Martian habitat wouldn’t work on Mars—it’s not airtight or particularly radiation resistant—but that’s not its purpose. Rather, it’s the sustainable farming ecosystem on the inside of the habitat that Raymond feels will be valuable, not just to future Martians, but also malnourished communities on Earth.
When I spoke with Raymond in March, his Martian habitat had struggled to survive the winter, but he said he’s made a lot of changes since then. Over the last eight months, Raymond said that he’s significantly altered the design of the habitat to the point where it is almost an entirely new space. He’s added flooring, two new aquaponics systems to grow vegetables, installed a massive heater, and changed the habitat’s roof so that it will act more like a solar greenhouse.
In the meantime, Raymond is working on beefing up his own farming knowledge as well as finishing the first of the two planned Martian habitats. Going into 2018, Raymond said his biggest goal is to automate most of the critical systems in the habitat so it takes up less time to maintain it.
“We haven't had a vacation in forever,” Raymond told me. “The system needs to be monitored and that means you can't go anywhere or do anything. We joke about this thing being our baby because it takes our full attention.”
Automation will also allow for easier adoption of the design by others. According to Raymond, getting these processes up and running has proven challenging and he’s still in the early days of software development for many of the automated systems that will water the plants and monitor temperatures and nutrients in the soil.
“We want to make it as easy as possible if you want to grow your own food,” Raymond said. “We want the system to take of itself to the point where everyone can use it. That’s where the software automation comes in.”
Once the automation is finalized, the habitat will essentially be finished. At that point, Raymond plans on creating a second habitat, which will be smaller and designed with the valuable experience gleaned from building the first. Raymond’s hope is that smaller versions of his Martian habitat will one day be found in urban centers and provide a fresh source of produce for local communities on—and off—of Earth.