NASA – Controlled Environment Agriculture in Space SNEAK PEAK

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Sneak peak into what’s coming up in Issue 13 in April 2016

by Jim Pantaleo

It was an honor and a privilege to recently speak with Dr. Gary Stutte, NASA Principal Investigator, and timely too, given the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) events occurring on theInternational Space Station (flowering zinnia and lettuce successfully grown) and in the Oscar-nominated film The Martian. The triple play here is American astronaut Scott Kelly‘s safe return to Earth within the past 24 hours after nearly a year aboard the ISS.

The below is an excerpt from a larger interview conducted with Dr. Stutte to be published in Issue 13 of Urban Ag News in April, 2016.

JP: Gary, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me…What have you been up to lately?

GS:  I’ve been pretty busy since I saw you last. I’ve attended a couple more vertical farming conferences; just before Christmas I went to a Plant Factory symposium in Seoul, South Korea. It was certainly interesting and the industry is beginning to really grow in Asia.

Personally, I’ve been working on a number of projects; at Kennedy Space Center we’re continuing to look at dwarf plums – we’re going to try to get fruit into space – and longer term you can have a continuously cropping plum. That’s being done in collaboration with NASA and the US Department of Agriculture (at the Appalachian Fruit Research Laboratory in Kearneysville, WV).

I have recently started a small company called SyNRGE LLC. It’s named after a series of flight experiments my collaborator, Dr. Michael Roberts, and I have been doing looking at plant microbe interactions. And the goal of this company is identifying technologies that were developed for producing plants in space and the impacts on biology and developing those for Earth applications.

Our first major effort is preparing an experiment to the International Space Station. It is being funded by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and is being tested now and will be launched on SpaceX 8 hopefully later this spring. We’re very excited about that. It’s going to be looking at a legume model, a little clover-like plant called Medicago truncatula, and looking at bacteria and fungi that have bio-stimulatory affects. We want to see if we can reduce the stress and increase the production and growth of plants in micro gravity by developing these plant-microbe interactions.

JP: What did you think of the ‘growing potatoes’ scene in The Martian?   

GS: I was happy to see it up there. From the outset The Martian was a very enjoyable film. It was extremely well done and I think pretty accurately represented what Mars looks like. It highlighted many of the challenges and approaches that will be required of people to live for a long time on Mars. It highlighted the need for oxygen, CO2 removal, limitations of water, the need for food, the limits of power, dust storms and the need to reuse and re-utilize supplies.

Those are all critical issues and I think very well highlighted. They picked a good crop. Potatoes in our tests were the winners in the “yield derby” in terms of being able to convert an amount of carbon dioxide into edible food or what we call our “harvest index.”