Image credit: NASA
Gardening in Space
By Rob Sproule
“It’s a fixer-upper of a planet but we could make it work.”
– Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, speaking in May 2013 about the possibility of humans eventually settling on Mars.
Growing without Gravity:
Have you ever wondered how a seed knows which way is “up”? Plants are smarter than we think, and in a process called geotaxis, detect Earth’s gravitational field and send the sprout growing against it.
But what happens if you remove the gravity. With humankind on the brink of long voyages in space, the trivia of how to make plants grow in space has become a vital research topic at NASA.
First challenge: without gravity, roots will grow in all directions. In 2014, astronauts installed Veg-01 at the ISS in order to germinate and grow humanity’s first space veggies. You can geek-out with the details in this NASA video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9aR2-7sOjg
Veg-01 is lined with unique “pillows,” which are filled with a media of slow release fertilizer and specialized clay. The seeds are inlaid into a wick and stuck into the pillow, pointed up. LED lights shine down on the seed in order to coax it upwards in the proper direction.
The Power of Plants:
With all our technology to provide artificial vitamins, why this effort? Besides having the ability to produce their own seeds, veggies help NASA regulate air quality by gobbling up carbon dioxide and reducing humidity.
Dr. Gioia Massa, the NASA science team lead for “Project Veggie,” is responsible for taking the first steps towards creating a food production system, and a better quality of life, for future astronauts in deep space and on Mars. She’s passionate about her charge, “The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits.”
Flowers have an uncanny ability to relieve stress. At NASA, planning for extended space travel is about more than having enough food and fuel. If the astronauts’ don’t stay psychologically fit, everything falls apart. Bring on the flowers.
In 2015, the first flowers bloomed at the ISS. The Zinnias (“Profusion” series to be exact), aren’t edible, but flowers have an uncanny ability to provide comfort and remind us of home. When astronauts are locked inside a metal box in deep, cold space for years at a time, “home” will become very important.
As we look towards journeying to and, eventually, establishing a colony on Mars, we’ll need to become self-sufficient with fresh food. The science that NASA, and people like Dr. Massa, are doing now will be used for decades of space exploration.