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By Sandra J. Ackerman
DURHAM, N.C. – As she prepares to graduate from Duke University this spring, undergraduate Morgan Irons is thinking about the future—the distant future. She is planning a unique new system for growing food on Mars.
A senior majoring in environmental science and policy as well as biology, Irons – who recently received a prestigious Brooke Owens Fellowship from The Future Space Leaders Foundation – is currently awaiting word about a patent application she has filed on an innovative design for a closed environmental system (CES) that could sustain life in extreme environments.
“Ten years from now we hope to have solved some key problems of food insecurity in extreme environments, and by solving them in extreme environments here on Earth we will have solved them also for space,” she says.
She has formed a company, Deep Space Ecology LLC, to build, monitor, and maintain CES facilities. To work with her, she has assembled a crew whose expertise ranges from web architecture to mechanical engineering to systems modeling for aircraft carriers. One member of her “team of space dreamers” is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and two have served on NASA simulation missions. Her father, with experience as a consultant in nuclear power, waste management and environmental remediation, is chief executive officer and general manager. Irons herself serves as the company’s chief scientific officer.
Although Deep Space Ecology is a brand-new corporation, the idea behind it goes back a couple of years to an independent study course that she designed for herself as a sophomore.
“This was my first independent study, so it was kind of daunting,” she says. Despite her qualms, she secured the backing of Jim Heffernan, assistant professor of ecosystem ecology and ecohydrology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, as her faculty advisor on the project.
Heffernan saw his role as encouraging Irons to include more of an ecological perspective in her work.
“We talked about ecosystems service—the concept that nature provides things of value to people—and about resilience in nature,” he says. “Morgan had already done a lot of reading on the engineering side of things, but what impressed me most was her ability to go and find the big ideas in ecology that she needed.”
Irons vividly recalls what proved to be a turning point in the project. As she tells it, “I was outside Jim Heffernan’s office, waiting for one of our weekly meetings, scribbling in my lab notebook and thinking that pretty much all the CESs I had read about shared some of the same fundamental problems.”
One problem was that all these closed systems would have to be opened sometime, whether because of environmental degradation, technological snags, or any number of other difficulties.
Another problem was that they all seemed to focus on the technology, leaving the biology in the background.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t they pay more attention to the biology?’ —and then I had really a kind of Eureka moment,” she says. “This was when I came up with a new concept, the three-zone model. In this model, the CES has a habitation zone, an agricultural zone, and an ecological buffer zone—and this third zone hadn’t been proposed in any CES that I’d read about anywhere.”
The buffer zone, in fact, is the key to the sustainability of the entire system.
Irons reasoned that most agrarian societies in human history could be found to consist of a residential zone and an agricultural zone, both of them carefully controlled by their human inhabitants. Beyond these two zones, in virtually all cases, was an uncontrolled buffer zone—in effect, a wilderness.
“The wilderness is like a reserve that allows agricultural diversity and offers more space if that’s needed,” Irons explains. The population takes what it needs from the wilderness and brings it back to the residential and agricultural zones. With the third zone left wild and serving as a buffer, she says, the use of this model in space “would basically be like putting humans back into the context of how we’ve always lived.”
As it turned out, coming up with the three-zone concept – you can see a video illustrating it here – was not the only crucial moment in the formation of Deep Space Ecology. Another crunch point came when Irons realized she wouldn’t be able to obtain an essential material known as regolith—a gravelly substance used to simulate the surface of Mars—without help from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She would have to introduce herself, explain her project, and request a favor from the JPL, all in one phone call. “It was really nerve-wracking,” she says. “To be honest, my dad had to give me a pep talk before I made the call.”
With or without a pep talk, Irons has long been known for her ambition and initiative.
Within a week of her arrival at Duke, she was working with the university’s natural resources manager, banding and planting trees and conducting a survey of students’ opinions on campus environmental beauty.
She went on to found a student group called Campus Keepers, whose projects have included planting trees and flowers, mulching, and path repair—and, she notes, whose spring tree-planting event is scheduled to take place in the next few weeks.
In honor of these efforts, Irons was named Duke’s first Tree Campus Ambassador. “This is a position that was created for me,” she says, laughing a little sheepishly. “I guess I move fast—when I see an opportunity I go in, and when I don’t see an opportunity I make one.”
Sandra J. Ackerman is a contributing editor of American Scientist Magazine and a freelance science writer based in Durham, North Carolina.