Feeding Space Travelers
NASA is exploring the best controlled environment agriculture technology on Earth today so that one day it can meet the challenges of keeping humans well-nourished as they make the long trip to Mars in confined spaces.
Biosphere 2 in Arizona is a three-plus acre domed glass facility, a conceptual and engineering marvel created to better understand how natural environments generate conditions appropriate for life. It is also a study of ecosystem processes under controlled conditions.
So, what better location to hold the recent inaugural Interdisciplinary Controlled Environment Indoor Agriculture symposium sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center?
More than 100 engineers, researchers, academicians, growers, and government representatives spent four days working to develop a roadmap of strategic and sustainable plans to feed the future.
And while the agricultural industry continues to wrestle with the problem of coming up with the best way to feed 10 billion people within the next 30 years, a group of NASA scientists explained their challenges involved in solving the nutritional needs of just four people — astronauts living in a space capsule on their way to the moon and beyond, possibly, to Mars.
The potential problems are as all-encompassing as outer space itself, and just as exciting if your name is Ralph Fritsche and your job title is senior crop project manager in NASA’s Life Sciences Office.
“We struggle with the same issues that greenhouse growers and indoor vertical farms do in looking at food security,” he told the audience. “In our case, we’re trying to keep astronauts healthy and operating at peak performance on long-duration missions and that becomes a real challenge when you think in terms of a fresh food system that has been pre-packaged perhaps several years before the crew gets to eat it. We don’t yet know what happens to food stored for that long a time, how it will impact the efficacy of certain key ingredients.”
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Elaborating further in his compare-and-contrast scenario, Fritsche adds, “We also have to deal with an issue of morale as we have people taken away from their Earth environment and we’re trying to keep some reminiscence of home in the foods they eat.” That leads away from pre-packaged and into growing fresh nutrients in a space capsule with little space. “Our near-term goal is basically nutritional supplementation, using pick-and-eat items like traditional leafy greens and fruiting crops that don’t require a lot of processing or preparation because we don’t have the space or resources to do that.”
For the long-term goal, setting up on surfaces of another planet, whether it’s the moon as a precursor to Mars or Mars itself, NASA will be looking at caloric supplementation, replacement, trying to grow things in situ and, ultimately, getting to a complete life support system.
Earlier space missions where crews were kept busy at work stations on their way to the moon didn’t have much time to plant something and grow it to harvest. Longer duration flights will afford that luxury of research of the effect of a non-Earth environment on the plants being grown with much of it done by automation.
“Other challenges we have when it comes to space flights beyond low Earth orbit is the further away from Earth we get, the less ability we have for direct communication from ground control,” said Fritsche. “That’s not a big deal on the moon, but when we get to Mars, that distance presents a problem as a roundtrip communication could take up to 45 minutes, so astronauts will become the real-time decision-makers.”
Among the obstacles to be overcome is moving the concept of replacing a component to repairing one through 3D printing or replacing an element versus whole systems replacement. “We have to be able to detect problems in advance and extend the life cycle of every system because a systems failure in space can really cause a bad day.”
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Because of lengthy flying time in a Mars mission, systems will remain dormant for a long period. Imaging a plant growth system with an included water supply that’s been sitting around for a year. It needs to perform on demand because back-ups are non-existent.
Challenges to terrestrial controlled environment agriculture pale in comparison with supplying sustenance in space. Here’s NASA’s game plan: First, a gateway, a mini-station in space right around the moon, perhaps not used for food production, but plant research. “Then we’ll do some modest operations on the lunar surface attempting to supplement some dietary needs so astronauts can stay there longer, perhaps checking our systems we’ll need for a Mars surface operation,” says Fritsche.
Added to all the aforementioned challenges is the matter of biomass waste in space. It doesn’t just go into the compost pile, because there isn’t one. “Everything that’s inedible should have a re-use, but compostable biomass will be a real challenge trying to grow iterations of plants in an uninhabited vehicle and figuring out a way to take that waste, clean it, and store it in some way where it can be used in another grow out.”
Right now, Fritsche admits, NASA is taking its cues from current controlled environment knowledge and technology, with a pay-it-forward attitude. “Our challenges are so specific and acute and as we work with the CEA industry to find solutions, some light bulbs will light up on how those space solutions can be applied here on Earth.
“In order to keep our astronauts healthy, we’re going to have to have on-board space to grow plants because anything beyond low-orbit flight will require a food generation capability and we’ll need CEA industry interchange on ideas like breeding for sustainability and reduced biomass,” syas Fritsche. “We’ll need controlled environment industry collaboration to help us build better systems.”