Don’t feel bad if you can’t quite keep up with Joshua Borchardt. The 2008 Maple Grove High School graduate has been studying life forms in space and the potential for life on Mars. His work includes a stint at NASA in 2012. With his background, Borchardt’s parents, Wendy and Jerry, liken their family to the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory—in which an aspiring actress named Penny befriends a group of scientists and shenanigans ensue.
“I’m Penny,” Wendy jokes. Not only does she have Joshua and his elite science mind in her family, but Jerry and her two other sons are also engineers. “A lot of it’s over my head,” she says.
“He’s always had this desire to explore things that are unknown,” Jerry adds. “Space was a natural transition for him to the next level of what might be possible.”
It’s hard to blame these parents for being unable to keep up once Joshua Borchardt starts talking about his research of life on other planets. He begins throwing around words like “microbial.” The basic premise of this kind of research is that microbial life includes microorganisms that survive in the harshest of environments, leading to the hypothesis that these organisms could survive in outer space.
Borchardt found this idea fascinating. He set out for a biology degree at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in 2008 and got deeply involved with space studies. After graduating from NDSU in 2012, he went on to get a master’s degree in space studies and planetary sciences last spring.
“It’s the proverbial Star Trek phase,” Borchardt says of his love of space. “The final frontier. We don’t know what resources, life and new technology are out there because it isn’t being studied constantly.”
In his master’s thesis, Borchardt explored a new frontier recreating the surface material of Mars (called regulus) to find out if plants could grow. He discovered that while there are compounds in the material on Mars that would hinder growth, it is possible to grow plants. “You could survive on Mars,” Borchardt says.
This was a small-scope study, focusing on one aspect of life forms on the planet, and Mars certainly isn’t as stable an environment as Earth. Crops on Mars would grow one-third as well as they do on Earth—for example, if it were possible to plant corn on Mars, you would get one-third the return you would on our home planet.
Based on this research, Borchardt took part in a study at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah for the 2014 field season. His work there was based on his master’s research, expanding his previous hypothesis to specifically examine how nutrient-dense the soil is on the planet. His findings confirmed his previous work, that it would be possible to sustain plant life on Mars.
Having completed his studies, Borchardt, 25, continues to gather information about the universe and looks forward to a long career studying space. He recently snagged a job with a start-up aerospace company in Minneapolis and hopes to continue helping the scientific community push forward.
“In science, you build off the person before you,” Borchardt says. He’d like to be one of those people who discovers something really useful that opens up the field, pushing the frontier back one more step.