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Growing Pains

It's the one area of space science in which you get to eat the experiment.

However, Communist party general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Soviet Union had extended to its space program as well. On board the new space station, pure scientific research was de-emphasized, replaced by a focus on commercial profit. Mir’s only greenhouse, a Bulgarian-Russian unit dubbed Svet, had been included mostly for political purposes and was far less advanced than earlier Russian greenhouses.

“Technologically it was similar to Oasis, 20 years before,” says Nechitailo. “We couldn’t learn anything from it.” Except for one failed attempt to grow wheat in 1991, the effort by Nechitailo and her partners at Energia and IMBP to grow plants in space was over, leaving unanswered the question of whether seeds produced in space could grow and produce viable second-generation seeds in orbit.

By the time NASA and the Russian space agency began a partnership in 1996, the Soviet Union had disintegrated and Nechitailo, who was closely tied to the Soviet power structure, had been forced out of the agency’s plant research programs. NASA brought new ideas and new equipment to Mir, and infused the program with a large amount of cash.

The first great success came with American Michael Foale’s stay on Mir in 1997. In May of that year, Foale planted 52 seeds of Brassica rapa—better known as mizuna, a wild plant that produces tasty light-green leaves that can be cooked, mixed in salads, or simply plucked off and eaten. Like Arabidopsis, its life cycle is short; it flowers only 14 days after being sown. It is also resistant to ethylene, a gaseous plant hormone that tended to linger in Mir’s atmosphere and had been blamed for ruining a past wheat-growing experiment. Foale’s plan was to coax two generations of seeds from the mizuna seeds.

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.”

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