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This might be separated in to 2 questions but I have issues with Mark Watney(Matt Damon) growing his own food on Mars. Currently the space station is growing their own food. On a side note it doesn't seem like the Mars soil combined with feces would be able to grow potatoes although this link says otherwise.

  1. If it was fertile enough why weren't they doing it already?
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  1. The mission wasn't long enough to require it.
  2. It is very expensive to dedicate habitat area to farming.
  3. It is very expensive to dedicate astronaut time to farming.
  4. You don't spend trillions of dollars on a mission and tolerate the risk of all the things that could go wrong with cultivating food, so you'd need to pack food as a contingency anyhow. They probably don't even know if it is possible to cultivate in amended Martian soil. @NathanK.Campbell confirmed this suspicion in this comment. It is explained in the book as

    Why bring a botanist to Mars?....The idea was to figure out how well things grow in Martian gravity, and what, if anything, we can do with the Martian soil.

  • Having looked at the space station lettuce farm cnn.com/2015/08/10/us/space-station-lettuce I could understand them not planning to grow their own food because something could go wrong that is under stable. Other then that a basic place to grow food would be small(according to the picture) require little time. Also although this mission wasn't long they did plan to return at least once more. – William Dec 17 '15 at 17:28
  • Also as I remember he was using the whole area to grow food for just himself, and was eating only potatoes. They would need a larger area and crop for all crew members, and eating just potatoes for the whole mission would get old fast! – Tom.Bowen89 Dec 18 '15 at 10:10
  • @Tom.Bowen89 It would also get lethal fast. – zxq9 Dec 18 '15 at 15:10
  • @ThePopMachine I might ask another question more specifically about the book. It appears the answer should be that they did plan to but hadn't yet. So my next question I guess might be why wasn't he better prepared or didn't use the equipment that they planned to use? Nathan said "they never got the chance. Disaster struck just a few days into the mission leaving Watney stranded and presumed dead." So again with out reading the book I'm still not sure why they had a botanist on board but weren't better prepared to grow food. – William Dec 20 '15 at 5:00
  • @William: His job was to investigate 'what, if anything, we can do with the Martian soil." This means he's have some smallscale equipment for scientific experiments. That nothing like what's needed for large-scale agriculture. (I sort of think you're overthinking it.) – ThePopMachine Dec 20 '15 at 16:12
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First off, the Martian soil probably does have the necessary mineral nutrients required to support life, but probably not the organic nutrients. Amending soil is not that much of a big deal if you have a few basic chemicals, and if you are like the main character a botanist with a general science background as well, you know what you need to do.

Your manure has all the organic inputs needed to grow plants. It may be deficient in some, but ultimately it wasn't completely a closed system with the packaged food being a faucet of nutrients into the system

  • you are right modernfarmer.com/2015/10/can-you-grow-plants-on-mars although I am still not sure why they weren't doing it already – William Dec 17 '15 at 17:34
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    Well the other answer says why not doing it already, but I was answering the assumption that they didn't because they couldn't. – Escoce Dec 17 '15 at 18:01
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    This is explained explicitly in the book: Why bring a botanist to Mars?....The idea was to figure out how well things grow in Martian gravity, and what, if anything, we can do with the Martian soil. – NKCampbell Dec 17 '15 at 19:28
  • @NathanK.Campbell So that brought a botanist but never actually attempted to grow their own food. This all seems mighty convenient. (I have not read the book so maybe they attempted to grow food in the book but not the movie.) – William Dec 18 '15 at 23:33
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    @William - they never got the chance. Disaster struck just a few days into the mission leaving Watney stranded and presumed dead. Read the book. It is really good. – NKCampbell Dec 18 '15 at 23:35
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I like the answer about space availability, but I also think this:

This was just the third manned mission. The first would be dedicated to going there and getting back again - checking out all of the tools and systems. The second pretty much the same as the first, but implementing lessons learned from the first and doing more exploration. We don't know the crew details of the first two missions, but including Watney on the third - a botanist - seems to indicate that NASA was thinking of the future. I can't imagine that there would be a botanist on the first mission or even the second.

Watney would presumably spend his time doing ag experiments which would apply to future missions. I'm a bit fuzzy on what his exact mission assignment was though.

Obviously, NASA was thinking less about setting up an agrarian society and more about exploration at this stage. Otherwise, why wouldn't all missions land at the same spot?

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Maybe they didn't want to contaminate the planet with life from Earth

  • A search for life would be much harder if we introduced life to Mars.
  • Possibly ethics, Many people are opposed to the idea of spreading our impact to another planet.
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They were only going to be there 30 days. That isn't enough time to grow enough food to be worth the time and effort growing it.

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