Food for Future Explorers


Food on Mars

The first humans to reach Mars will need technology to grow crops. Kevin Augustyn '17, a civil engineering major, wants NASA to know he's already on the job.

"I've always dreamed of living on Mars someday," he said. "I believe that's the next step for humanity."

Augustyn proposed a Mountaintop project (Extra-Terrestrial Greenhouses) and assembled a team of students and mentors with expertise in materials science, mechanical engineering, biology and more. The group included Aidan Din '16, Drew Nielsen and Aaron Sandoval '17, and as mentors, Profs. Terry Hart and Natasha Vermaak (mechanical engineering) and Spencer Quiel (civil and environmental engineering). Hart is a former astronaut.

The project is ambitious: build a prototype for an inflatable, pressurized greenhouse to grow potatoes, rice and other nutrient-rich crops to sustain a crew of explorers. Mentors helped the team develop a research plan.

"The Mountaintop experience is different for students and for faculty because the direction is from the students, and knowledge is sought out on demand, necessitated by context and application," Vermaak said.

Din tested potential materials to determine how well they would withstand the planet's harsh conditions. When the team started working with mirrors to reflect more light into the greenhouse, it attacked the problem via trial and error. They soon recognized the need for a physicist with specific knowledge of optics. "That was the first moment where we realized, okay, this is really interdisciplinary," Augustyn said. "We cannot do this alone."

This story was included in the 2015 Lehigh Annual Report. Click here to learn more about the innovators, educators, and storytellers that have shaped 150 years of Lehigh history and continue to push the university into the future.

Story by Hilary Kwiatek
Photograph by Christa Neu

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