Plants in Space: Seeding Sustainable Exploration

 

If we are to sustainably explore other worlds, we need to grow plants in space. The importance of space botany to life off Earth was shown fictionally in The Martian – Matt Damon grew potatoes from stored tubers in order to survive his ordeal on the red planet.

In fact, growing plants off Earth is no longer just a fiction. Astronauts on the International Space Station grew red lettuce in 2014 and 2015, and then zinnias in 2016. Now, scientists are experimenting with growing plants without  substrates using methods like hydroponics and aeroponics. This could help reduce the need to carry dirt on lengthy missions to Mars and beyond. One “deployable plant growth unit” currently on the ISS is the Vegetable Production System (Veggie). NASA has sponsored and developed the Veggie to help astronauts grow vegetables both for nutritional and recreational purposes.

Chinese cabbage is grown in the Veggie facility on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Filling Space spoke with Dr. Gioia Massa, a leading scientist on the Veggie, to learn more about space botany.

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How did you personally end up becoming a space botanist? 

My journey started when I was in 7th grade. I took an agriculture class because I liked plants and horses. While there, I learned a lot about horticulture and my agriculture teacher, Mr. Eugene Dulac, was invited to participate in a weeklong teacher workshop held at Kennedy Space Center about the research being done to grow plants in space. He took videos of everything he saw and he brought it all back to share with his students. I was mesmerized by the research that was going on to grow food to support the astronauts for long duration space exploration missions – research about bioregenerative life support systems. In addition to growing crops with different hydroponic techniques, researchers at that time were doing fish production.

I got inspired and was encouraged by Mr. Dulac. Our Future Farmers of America group went into the elementary schools and did presentations for the younger students on how things worked in space and how important food would be for the astronauts. We brought in simple toys to explain how they would behave differently in microgravity and talked about where your food comes from on Earth. It not only inspired the students we taught, but it inspired me to do more in this area and instilled a lifelong love of outreach in me as well. I worked with my agriculture teachers, both at the junior high, and also in high school, to build and test hydroponic systems. Mr. Dulac also started a large successful aquaculture program at the junior high, inspired by NASA.

I continued to pursue a degree in Plant Sciences, with a PhD in plant biology, and postdoctoral work in horticulture as a member of a NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Advanced Life Support. I was fortunate enough to be selected as a NASA intern and participate in a student-run space shuttle experiment, and I had wonderful mentors who supported my passion!

Does learning about how plants grow in space have any consequences for humans back on Earth?

There is a lot we are learning in plant space research and space food production that can translate to Earth-based agriculture, and even more innovations from the broader area of Controlled Environment Agriculture that we fall within. Learning how to grow plants, while minimizing resources such as power, volume, and labor, or learning how to use light and fertilizer to optimize yields, flavor, nutritional quality, and microbial levels, translates well to concepts like urban plant factories and vertical farms. Fundamental plant science research in space is helping to unlock mechanisms of how plants sense and integrate stimuli from their environment, and this knowledge may help with the development of better crops and crop production systems in the future as agriculture expands to more environments on Earth, and as increasing population pressure drives higher levels of food production.

To what extent will growing plants in space help humans survive or permanently live off-planet?

I do not see how we can ever be truly Earth-independent without food production. There are ways to recycle and replenish air and water through physico-chemical or bioregenerative means, or some combination of the two, however, right now there is no better way to produce food than to grow it ourselves. Plants have a wonderful capacity to be transported as tiny seeds, which can remain dormant for long periods, be resistant to many harsh stresses, and when given the appropriate environment, to germinate, grow, and produce abundant food. They are perfect for journeys of exploration and discovery!

Right now we are focusing on supplementing the packaged diet with fresh produce as the nutrient levels in stored food may degrade over time, and fresh produce may also help add interest to the diet. Plant care may be a countermeasure for the stress of long term space flight as well. All of these topics are areas of active research. But as we go farther and stay longer I think we will likely grow a larger percentage of the diet, and ultimately, if humans are living and working off of Earth for an extended period, they can get to the point of meeting all the dietary needs with plant products they grow. That step will take a significant amount of growing space, power, labor, and equipment, and a large number of research questions must first be answered before we are ready!