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Davis Journal

Growing plants on Earth could help astronauts eat in space

Jun 02, 2023 12:37PM ● By Becky Ginos
NASA select plants and ships the seeds to the class where students must follow strict protocols. Photos by Jen Jones.

NASA select plants and ships the seeds to the class where students must follow strict protocols. Photos by Jen Jones.

CLEARFIELD—How can growing plants on Earth help astronauts stay healthy in space? A NASA program called “Growing Beyond Earth” gives kids the chance to cultivate fruit and vegetable plants that could ultimately be grown aboard the International Space Station (ISS), on the surface of the Moon, and even possibly on Mars. The project runs through the school year at the Clearfield Branch that was named a NASA@My Library.

“NASA partners with the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens,” said Jen Jones, NASA Solar System Ambassador. “It’s not far from the Kennedy Space Center. The project is called Growing Beyond Earth. . It allows students to grow plants in a habitat similar to the Veggie (Vegetable production system) on the ISS.”

Jones said NASA selects plants and ships the seeds to the class. “Students have to follow strict protocols. They give us growing mediums and pots and time release fertilizer for the exact life cycle of the plants.”

Students follow the protocol and take data each week along the way, she said. “That data is sent to Fairchild first and then it’s pared down and sent on to NASA where it is used to evaluate the growth of each plant variety. If the plants grow well in the habitat, they will be put into a growth chamber at theKennedy Space Center. In this high fidelity chamber that exactly mimics that conditions on the International Space Station the same plants are grown to see if the data matches what the kids’ plants did.”

All plants can't go into space so they’re tested in groups, said Jones. “If a plant doesn’t grow well or gets too big it is eliminated from the program. If the plant does well in the Veggie simulated habitat, they grow it again to see if it does well in NASA’s high fidelity chambers that exactly mimic the condition on the International Space Station. They want to test out the plants to see if they are candidates to grow on the surface of the Moon or Mars.”

The International Space Station is only about eight hours from Earth, she said. “So they can get a shipment of fresh vegetables to astronauts regularly. The Moon is three days away so it’s more expensive to send supplies. They don’t get as many fruits and vegetables so they have to plan ahead.”

Kids in the Growing Beyond Earth program collect data from the plants they’re growing. Their findings will be sent to Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens then on to NASA.

The project makes it so astronauts can grow their own veggies and fruits, said Jones. “It takes about two and a half years for a round trip to Mars. In that time frame there is no way to resupply and it won’t last that long to take with them. So they can grow it themselves on the journey to the surface and still have fruits and vegetables.”

They have to have the highest content to keep them healthy, she said. “Especially in that environment it is very hostile. It counter-balances that radiation experience.”

Students do the experiment twice, said Jones. “They follow the protocol exactly then the second time they add a variable to see what that does.”

The class was growing basil, fennel and herbs, she said. “They’re good for the circulatory system. That’s meant to get the nutrients all the way to the brain and get the fluids throughout the body.”

Antigravity affects their smell and taste in space, Jones said. “Astronauts like flavorful foods. Peppers and hot sauce taste normal to them. Herbs and plants that have strong flavors that are high in nutrient density, that’s a double bonus for astronauts.”

The entire process before the students find out if their plants were selected takes about two years, said Jones. “But if they see their plants growing on Mars in the future they can say ‘I helped with that.’”

Students gave their presentations in April and signups for the next group start in August. “We don’t know what the plants are yet for this year,” she said. “We meet once a week but there’s two groups.”

The kids learn about the ISS and NASA missions planned, said Jones. “They get space education in the process of learning about plants and how to grow them. We want to give students as many real world experiences as we can. They get to collect real data that can be used to really affect future space stations.”

For more information on the Growing Beyond Earth program or to register visit the Clearfield Branch website and fill out the form to sign up.