Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Will there be wine on Mars? Georgia prepares its grapes for an interplanetary mission

by Giorgi Lomsadze

27.06.2018. Next time Matt Damon gets marooned on Mars, he may be whiling away his days sipping Saperavi instead of farming potatoes as he did so laboriously in the 2015 blockbuster, The Martian. Georgia, an ancient wine-making redoubt, is putting its best space science and viticulture minds together to develop grapes fit for growing on Mars.

With its rocks and deserts, the Red Planet may not offer the best terroir for growing grapes, but with a 8,000-year record of cultivating grapes on the Planet Earth, Georgia is still eager to give it a whirl. After all, NASA and International Potato Center have successfully experimented with growing potatoes in Mars-like conditions, so why not take Martian farming to the next, more sybaritic stage?

The idea was born out of a recent call for proposals from NASA, the United States space agency, for facilitating a sustained human presence on Mars. “This could include shelter, food, water, breathable air, communication, exercise, social interaction and medicine, but participants are encouraged to consider innovative and creative ideas beyond these examples,” NASA wrote in a press release announcing the initiative in May.

A working group was set up in Tbilisi to work on the Martian grapes project, formally launched on June 22 at the Georgian National Museum. Named IX Millennium, the project involves setting up a “vertical greenhouse lab to grow grapevines in a ‘closed, controlled space,’” the Georgian news agency agenda.ge reported. The lab will be based in a Tbilisi hotel and operated by a company named SpaceFarms.

“We started thinking about how Georgia can partake in this project [Journey to Mars Challenge] and we have decided it should be the grapevine,” Misha Batiashvili, rector of Tbilisi-based Business and Technology University told IPN newswire. “Winemaking is our historical patrimony and our pride.”

Per traditional Georgian wine-making method, wine is aged in giant clay jars, the kvevris, buried neck-deep in the ground. It is not yet clear if Georgia will try to export that technique to Mars as well. For now the effort is focused on selecting the most suitable grape varietals.

So far, Georgia’s main contribution to space exploration has been a folk song sent into space on board the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s, as part of NASA's message from Earth to the universe. As with traditional polyphonic singing, winemaking also is deeply intertwined with Georgian national identity. The glory of the grapevine is sung in folk songs and poetry and depicted as bas-relief ornaments on the nation’s ancient churches.

One Soviet World War II-themed classic film, Father of a Soldier, provides perhaps the best depiction of Georgians’ cultural attachment to grapes. The film’s protagonist, an old Georgian peasant-turned Red Army recruit, rapturously finds vineyards in newly occupied Germany. For a moment, he forgets all about the battles raging around him and starts talking to the vines, attaching new shoots to the trellis. “How did you appear here, you blessed thing?” he asks in what has become a popular catchphrase in Georgia. Perhaps one day, another Georgian will say the same on Mars.

Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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