Part I : The Introduction
Growing Food In Space
Imagine trying to eat food in a place where gravity ceases to exist. Liquid floats around in drops and droplets, salt and pepper need be in liquid form as they cannot be sprinkled over the food (otherwise they may get into the eyes of the astronauts or even worse, clog the air filters). It would be a herculean task to simply sit down and eat as you would on earth.
Space is inhospitable. The combination of Ionizing radiation, altered gravity, changed atmospheric conditions and several other associated difficulties makes life and the growth of life in space exceedingly difficult. However, the future of the human race possibly lies in the not-so-distant future of extended deep-space exploration missions. Among various other needs that any astronaut might have, one of the most important factors is nutrition or food. At present, that need is mostly met through pre-processed and ready to eat meals which are supplied from Earth.
Plants have played a decisive role in the evolution of life on Earth. They are the primary transducers of Cosmic Energy, converting it into forms assimilated with ease by other forms of life. They reside as a cornerstone organism of any Bioregenerative Life Support Systems, producing and sustaining an environment which can support life
Hence, the successful growth and cultivation of plants or maintenance of plant growth is at present a hot bed of research activity. It is the golden key to a sustained presence in Space.
A Small Recapitulation of Previous Attempts
The first attempt at trying to understand the physiological mechanism of plants in space can be traced back to 1946, when NASA repurposed a V2 rocket and launched maize seeds into space, which were not recovered. However, it was the V-2 series of rockets which first successfully returned plant samples to Earth (1).
Later, in the Apollo 14 mission of 1971, seeds were carried into orbit around the moon. These seeds yielded life on Earth and were rechristened as Moon Trees.
In 1973, Skylab was launched using the Saturn V rocket, and it was aboard this that Rice was grown inside a plant growth chamber. The Russians followed with the successful cultivation of Arabidopsis thaliana aboard the Salyut 7 space station. Since then, there have been various experiments and instruments installed to carry out research into plant dynamics in space. Lada is present as the oldest greenhouse system aboard the ISS. It was followed by the VEGGIE system and the Advanced Plant Habitat. The science thus developed, lead to the first plants to grow on the surface of the moon, aboard the Chinese Chang’e-4 lunar rover.
In this Series..
Even though to most people the thought of growing plants or even cultivating them may seem like a distant dream, it is not the case. The forerunner of man’s endeavors into outer space was driven by the primal question if we are alone in this universe. To that point, long range transportation through space would require food stuff, and any period long enough to actually explore other habitable worlds would be based on the development of a replenishable food system.
In any case, the implementation of such a system was of great importance. Hence, investigation into growing plants has progressed in leaps and bounds. Plants serve not as the foremost necessity of a source of nutrition, but also are a cornerstone of a putative Bioregenerative Life Support System. It is of common knowledge that plants have a significant psychological effect. These become extreme important factors determining mission success and hence plants may induce a more comfortable and sustainable atmosphere for Astronauts to live and work in. The foremost ease of producing plants as the first proper source of nutrition is the evident simplicity of plant growth physiology in comparison to other living organisms.
Hence, in this series, we will explore different topics encompassing the growth of plants in space and their utility as a source of nutrition.