Jeff Raymond, a 38-year old former Air Force engineer in Washington, really wants to be an astronaut. He wants to be one so badly, in fact, that instead of waiting for NASA or SpaceX to begin shuttling people to the Red Planet, he's constructed his own self-sustaining Martian habitat in his backyard.
Raymond and his wife began constructing the massive habitat (it measures 80 feet long by 40 feet wide by 22 feet tall) last May and began initial operations in September. Late in December, he began hosting a YouTube series in which he takes his 20,000 subscribers along with him on his quest to engineer a self-sustaining Mars Habitat while borrowing his thematic elements from The Martian.
I caught up with Raymond to find out how his project is going, how he deals with the trolls, and whether or not he still wants to go to Mars after trying to be a Martian on Earth.
Motherboard: Hey Jeff! How'd you get started with your Martian Homestead project?
Jeff Raymond: Over the course of the last five years, I was doing a lot of research on living off the grid and that led to a bunch of big discoveries for me. What I came to find out is that there is this really big population problem on the horizon, and some reports say that by the year 2050 there's going to be 9.5 billion people on the planet. In order to feed all those people, we're going to have to increase agricultural production by over 75 percent from today. The best we can do, based on current projections, is 33 percent. Then I read another report that found that half the world's natural, freshwater aquifers are emptying faster than they can be filled. This is related of course to the agricultural problem and when I found this out, I was like man, we're going to have to do something.
So you decided to create a Martian habitat?
Well, first I did a little experiment in our home and built an aquaponics system. That little test led me to do a whole bunch of engineering design and some simulation scripts to figure out how to produce sustainable food. When people think sustainable agriculture, they usually think cattle, but if you do the math on animals, cattle are very costly when it comes natural resources, especially water. That led us to aquaponics because fish are fairly easily sustained, and one female fish can lay 750 eggs in one laying, and aquaponics uses about 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture. So we picked a fish that we enjoy eating that we're now raising for consumption and sale: rainbow trout. The problem with raising fish, of course, is you have all this waste. That's where aquaponics comes in. If you add the plants on top of the fish, then the plants and bacteria will eat the waste, you'll clean the water, and you have this really nice, almost closed loop system.
Okay, but what about power?
Solar power was key. The Mars Habitat isn't a greenhouse, it's a fabric building. It lets sunlight through but during the winter months we had to find a way to incorporate artificial light to handle the darkness. Our requirements for this structure is that it should be able to be employed anywhere on the planet, including Antarctica, so it had to be able to withstand extreme winds, snow loading, and the months of darkness that are found in extreme northern and southern latitudes. In the darkness, solar power won't really work though, so we started looking at how we could produce energy locally and integrate it into this system. We tried looking at growing algae and extracting biodiesel, but the numbers didn't really work out to where it was viable. We ended up still having to utilize fossil fuel in order to run the power generator when the solar panels weren't working. That led us to a digester, which takes organic matter and breaks it down, turning it into methane as well as a substance called digestate, which is a liquid fertilizer that can be cycled back into our aquaponics system.
This is a pretty impressive system. How much did it cost to get it off the ground and running?
To date we've invested $97,000 of our own money. By the time the first habitat is finished, the total cost is going to be just south of $150,000.
Is there any way this system could be used to generate revenue to help sustain the costs of running it?
That's where microgreens come in. One of the three grow lanes in the habitat is only growing microgreens and we've got three customers now who we deliver to weekly. Microgreens go for about $24 per pound, and we've finally made enough money from selling them to cover the cost of electricity and heating. If we grow all year around, we should produce about $125,000 in revenue.
We want to make a second hab and make it really small, so that you could potentially put these in urban environments, like in a highrise. We really want to get it so we can take all these systems so we can shove it into a shipping container so we can send them to whoever wants them, but particularly those areas that don't have food or energy. At that point, we're also kind of entering Mars territory as well.
Based on your videos, it looks like you've had to go through a lot of trial and error at this point. Has sharing your experience on YouTube helped or hindered this process?
It's a double-edged sword, to be honest. I've gotten an overwhelming amount of awesome feedback. People are spending time doing CAD drawings, sending me information, or offering advice based on their own personal experience for everything from grant writing to writing software. And there are students who are actually watching what I'm doing and learning from it. That makes me feel really good to know that both my successes and failures are being transitioned to the next generation.
On the other hand, the overwhelming response required me to rewire my brain. With 20,000 people watching and all these comments coming in, how can I respond to all of them? I want to, but I can't. I'm already booked: I work a full-time job, I do all the design work, all the build work, my wife does operations—so how do I make time for YouTube? It's taken a big toll to keep it going, but it's been worth it for all the feedback. But then you have the trolls. There are all these comments offering great constructive feedback, but then you get the ones that are like you're a complete idiot, this is all going to fail, you suck. No matter how hard you try to push those things out, it still hurts.
So after trying to create a sustainable Martian Habitat here on Earth and seeing how hard it is, do you still want to go to Mars?
I've actually thought about that a lot. My initial view of Mars was very romantic and I'd argue that a lot of them are. One of the things I think is missing [from many Mars projects] is the realism that actually comes from running a farm. If you're going to grow your own vegetables and do all this, you don't need biologists, you need farmers. Farmers are biologists, chemists, machinists, carpenters, farmers and ranchers all in one. They know how to deal with all these problems and we really need to be talking to them. The best financing, planning and best engineering pale in comparison to someone who can think on their feet and deal with problems directly in front of them. That's where The Martian did a very good job of saying this is what it looks like when everything goes horribly wrong.
Our conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity. You can follow Jeff Raymond's Real Martian Homestead project on YouTube .