What Would it Take to Get Chickens to Mars?

Should they boldly go where no poultry have gone before?

It’s been a big week for people who like space. On Thursday, the rover Perseverance landed on Mars where it will remain for one full Martian year—687 Earth days. The ultimate goal is that the rover will help scientists determine whether Mars has ever been a living planet and, at least where people like Elon Musk are concerned, whether humans could make Mars a home away from home.

Of course if the movie The Martian taught us anything it’s that people living on another planet are going to need a way to feed themselves. (Preferably with more than potatoes.) The International Space Station already has a small space garden where astronauts have been practicing how to grow leafy greens and colorful zinnia flowers in zero gravity. But trying to grow enough food to feed people on the surface of Mars will have a host of additional challenges. Consider that the planet gets half the sunlight that Earth does, has higher levels of radiation, and water and soil alike will have to be processed or amended to give Earth plants the proper nutrient levels to grow. It’s complicated enough to grow vegetables. Yet many researchers, past and present, who have thought about what kind of diets humans might have on Mars, include chicken and/or quail on the menu. Even Biosphere 2 where humans lived inside a totally enclosed three-acre complex of geodesic domes had animal cages which included jungle fowl, the chicken’s living ancestor. People really do not want to give up on the idea of a space diet that includes meat (or at least eggs).

So could there be chickens in space?

In 2012 some people posted a three-minute video on Youtube that purports to show “real uncut footage” of a chicken on Mars. (It is not real footage.) The video has been watched over three million times. Let’s be clear, there are no Martian chickens wandering around for a NASA rover to discover but there is a history of research hoping to someday find a way to get chickens—or at least quail—into space as a food source for long-term missions.

A lot of animals were sent into space before birds got their turn. In 1979—after animals from fruit flies to dogs to monkeys were sent into space often with tragic results for the animals—Russian cosmonauts began trying to hatch quail eggs in space. None of these chicks hatched because of slow development and deformities—possibly a result of higher than usual radiation, according to an article in Audubon. Quail are small game fowl that can be used for both eggs and meat and thus, potentially more useful in space where, well, space and resources are hard to come by.

While this was happening, John Vellinger, an eighth grader in Lafayette, Indiana began hatching a proposal to send chicken eggs into space. It wasn’t until his freshman year of college that he was finally paired with a KFC scientist (and $50,000 of KFC funding for the project) to develop a chicken egg incubator that could be sent into space. Unfortunately the first experiment was sent up on the Challenger which famously and shockingly exploded a minute into its flight, killing all seven crew members.

NASA and Vellinger tried the experiment again three years later on the Discovery’s 1989 flight STS-29. This incubator which had grown more advanced since the first model, could hold 32 eggs: half were fertilized two days before launch and the other half nine days before launch “to study if any changes in the developing embryo could be attributed to weightlessness,” writes a Collect Space article on the project which was dubbed Chix in Space. The eggs orbited the earth 80 times and travelled over two million miles during their five-day mission. “We should have some baby space chicks by Easter," a “somewhat frazzled-looking” Vellinger told The Washington Post.

About a week after the eggs returned to Earth, eight of the eggs hatched. Only those fertilized nine days before launch and farther along in their development made it. The first of the chicks to hatch was named Kentucky (this was a marketing opportunity for KFC after all) and sent to live at the Louisville Zoo. The rest of the chicks were studied throughout their lives and compared with a control group incubated entirely on Earth. Other than their unusual in-ovo orbits around the Earth, Chix in Space were basically normal chickens.

The following year another quail experiment resulted in the first hatch of a live bird in space. Eight of them to be exact. A blog on the history of the “cosmoquail” notes that the birds were “the first vertebrates to be born or rather hatched into the weightlessness of space.” Sadly but unsurprisingly the chicks couldn’t get used to microgravity and were unable to feed themselves. They all died or were euthanized. In 1990, the next quail in space were given little jackets that allowed them to feed. They lived but didn’t thrive. The cosmoquail blog notes that upon return to Earth the quail were weak and had trouble with balance as well as a posture that made them look “defeated” by gravity.

By the millennium, it seemed that the obsession with getting birds into space had cooled somewhat. The fact that many birds rely on gravity to drink (they scoop water into their beaks then tilt their heads back), the high rates of poor incubation and mortality, and their general unhappiness with zero gravity life sure makes it seem like they’d be poor companions on this particular journey.

Only one bird—a quail—has ever laid an egg in space. The birds that have hatched in space and stayed alive apparently did not feel like mating in zero gravity. It’s not a great sign for aspiring Martian poultry farmers.

As I wrote in a previous newsletter about the long history of chickens on sea voyages, humans have been bringing chickens with us to new frontiers throughout our history together. Birds might be able to fly but space, it seems, is one place that poultry just doesn’t belong.

News from the Coop

The girls and I “enjoyed” our snowstorm a few weekends ago. A few of them had never seen snow before and were very suspicious of this new cold white stuff covering the ground and also falling from the sky. I got them to come out with the help of some mealworms but for the most part the flock turned around and went back inside once those were eaten up. I had to give the coop some extra insulation since we don’t usually have 25 degree nights with high winds and ice but the nest box seemed warm in the mornings when I let them out and there wasn’t one speck of frostbite on them.

They have a little cozy coop heater that lives in the nest area during winter. It’s a panel that lets off a little radiant heat and mostly affects a chicken standing right next to it. I highly recommend it since it’s not a fire risk (though you should always check the wires every season to make sure they’re intact) and some of the bantams especially love snuggling up next to it on chilly nights.

But the snowstorms in the Pacific Northwest where I live and throughout the country led to a lot of posts in chicken groups about baby chick orders being stranded in post offices for long periods of time and high losses of mail order chicks. Between that and a newly proposed bill in NY that would end shipping chicks by mail, I thought it was time to write about the people for and against chick shipping. Here’s a link to the resulting article published by Modern Farmer.

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