It's the one area of space science in which you get to eat the experiment.
- By Robert Zimmerman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
(Page 4 of 5)
During previous missions to Mir, U.S. astronauts had refurbished the Svet greenhouse. “We worked with the Bulgarians to get new components built for Svet,” says Gail Bingham, a professor in the Plants, Soil, and Biometerology Department at Utah State University. Bingham’s USU team developed sensors that monitored the amount of moisture reaching the roots as well as the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels surrounding the plants. The team installed light banks and new fans to keep the greenhouse atmosphere circulating and clean of toxins, and replaced Svet’s artificial soil with a set of fabric sheets that were packed with seeds and then folded around perforated stainless steel watering tubes. Both the tubes and fabric were then enclosed in a calcite clay embedded with pellets that released nutrients over time.
After four weeks—twice as long as it would take on Earth—the plants were ready to be pollinated. Foale became a human bee, collecting pollen from the one- to two-inch plants and depositing it on their stamens, but his efforts were almost for naught—a Progress resupply vehicle collided with Mir. Damages and emergency maneuvers cut into the station’s power supply. The plants floated in darkness for three days, with no fans to circulate the air around them. Temperatures dropped to near-freezing. But just days after power was restored, several plants developed seed pods. “It was pretty clear that they were full of seeds,” Foale remembers. In between putting Mir back together—shifting batteries about and wiping up globs of water—Foale carefully harvested the pods, reserving half the seeds for return to Earth and preparing the rest for replanting in space. He gently inserted a half-dozen seeds back into Svet’s root modules.
For the next month, he helped each seed find light, delicately feeding them a precise amount of water. By September 1997, four of Foale’s six seeds had germinated, growing leaves and pods packed with seeds. After almost three decades of effort by both Soviets and Americans, a second generation of healthy plants had been grown in space. Six seeds were planted on Earth; two of them developed into viable plants, and the vision of self-sufficient space exploration seemed a little closer to reality.
Since Foale’s success, work has continued, first on Mir and then on the International Space Station. In 1998 and 1999, Russians on Mir were able to grow two generations of wheat, with the second generation producing healthy offspring back on Earth. In 2001, astronauts on ISS again grew Arabidopsis through an entire life cycle, confirming the work Lebedev had done two decades earlier.
In 2002, Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory and the Russian space agency teamed up to build a greenhouse dubbed Lada (after the Russian goddess of spring, with a nod to the boxy Soviet car) and installed it on the Russian side of the ISS. Lada’s aim is to grow edible vegetables instead of crops. “We aren’t ready yet to grow wheat and turn it into bread,” says Bingham. “Instead, we are trying to grow a salad machine.”
The costs of Lada’s design, construction, approval, and flight were many times less than they would have been if the greenhouse had been submitted to the complicated and time-consuming bureaucratic process NASA requires to get an experiment into space. Bingham says the U.S. side of the partnership contributed only about $300,000—a figure that owes much to free work done by USU students. There is no estimate of the amount contributed by the Russians. Bingham notes, “If you are really lucky and really well thought of in the NASA community, you might get two or three experiments in your lifetime. In contrast, we’ve already flown 10 experiments on Mir and the Russian side of ISS over 10 years.”
The Russian crew members spend their personal time tending Lada’s garden in exchange for the right to eat half their crops; the other half is reserved for analysis. Last November, cosmonauts reaped Lada’s first crop of leafy greens, greedily devouring half a harvest of Brassica rapa. (NASA would not grant permission for U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson to eat any—the greens had not been certified as safe for consumption—though her hand did mysteriously appear in a photograph of cosmonauts munching on their work.)
Like their Soviet predecessors, Bingham’s astro-farmers have been so taken by their work that they’re no longer automatically agreeing to do the tests Bingham and the other scientists propose. “They’ve become just as good at farming as we are,” says Bingham of the cosmonauts. “We think we ought to do something to the plants, and they’ll tell us, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ They know what’s best for the plants.”