Growing a MarsBoot – In 2016, designer Liz Ciokajlo received a commission from the Museum of Modern Art in New York: revisit the Moon Boot, a fluffy-looking snowshoe inspired by the footwear used by the Apollo astronauts. Ciokajlo set out to re-imagine it in a project called ‘Growing a MarsBoot’. She knew only a bio-material would work in a post-plastic age, but the designer also wanted a new destination to inspire it.
Our generation’s space travel obsession is not the Moon, she thought, but the red planet – Mars. And Mars allows you to ‘think outside of the box’.
“Mars has always been a place where you can dream,” Ciokajlo says. “It is a place where you can re-imagine how to live on Earth.”
Ciokajlo found a wondrous bio-material that had already attracted the attention of engineers innovating in building materials and of top space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
This magic bio-material is mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus. If you imagine that mushrooms are the ‘fruits’ of the fungus, mycelium could be regarded as its roots or stems.
It looks like a mass of white thread-like structures, each called hyphae, which crisscross soil and other material in which fungi grow.
Mycelium has amazing properties. It is a great ‘recycler’, as it feeds off a substrate (like sawdust or agricultural waste) to create more material, and has the potential of almost limitless growth in the right conditions.
It can endure more pressure than conventional concrete without breaking, is a known insulator and fire-retardant and could even provide radiation protection on space missions.
For her revisited boot, Ciokajlo wanted to use the human body as the source for some of the building materials and decided to employ sweat.
Reusing perspiration is not entirely new in space exploration (the International Space Station currently reuses astronauts’ urine and sweat for drinkable water) but a novelty approach for footwear.
The design remains hypothetical because the real boot submitted for MOMA – and currently on display at the London Design Museum – did use mycelium but not human sweat, as the deadline was too tight, but the science checks out.
Mycelium materials can take shape in several ways. If you have solid waste (like sawdust), you want to sterilise it and add the fungus so its spread can start.
By incubating it in controlled conditions for temperature and humidity, the white veiny hyphae would compact to create a solid fibrous material. This is how NASA and ESA hope to use mycelium for their Mars bases.
The engineer dreams about combining mycelium with 3D printing or even genetic manipulation to have more options and the team had good results in October, but as ESA is double-checking them, they are not public yet.
For many, mycelium provides a golden example of a circular economy. Waste comes in as input for the mycelium, and the resulting material is potentially biodegradable, just like wood.
“Currently our materials come from extraction,” says architect Adi Reza Nugroho, from the Indonesian firm MycoTech that provided the mycelium for ETH and KIT. “Now we want to have a closed-loop cycle.”
If NASA and ESA’s experiments are successful, a small group of fungus spores could provide the starting point for a living, a natural settlement on Mars. From a handful of spores, they could replicate and find dozens of uses for astronauts walking around the red planet.
And if Ciokajlo and Montalti have it their way, and these humans can spare a bit of their sweat, even the shoes on their feet will start life as a fungus.