Name: Cameron Mulvaney
Essay Theme: Cultivating New Technologies
School: New Life Christian Academy
Producing Food in Space
Crops in space? Absolutely! Especially if people are to travel months, even years, to other worlds and solar systems. It would be nearly impossible to send along enough food and water with a team of space explorers on a long-term mission. The reality is food biomass and water production for hydroponics are essential for extended space exploration. Furthermore, space may provide an effective, efficient environment to produce rare or genetically modified proteins needed by humans. Challenges in space are (1) lack of gravity required for development of roots, (2) controlled growing climate, (3) consistent sunlight, (4) essential nutrients including purified water supply, and (5) appropriate insects for cross-pollination. Well, biogenerative support systems consider all these challenges. A new science for space agriculture, called Astroculture, has been born to research conditions needed to create biogenerative life support in space.
Humans and plants are ideal companions in space and on Earth. People breathe air and generate carbon dioxide, which plants collect and convert to oxygen. Humans consume plants or parts for sustenance, but this results in waste by-products, which in turn can be used to provide nutrient support for plant growth. Considering how to capitalize on these extraordinary relationships between plants and humans, one must consider problems of sources of energy, reproduction of clean water, plus the effects of low gravity in space to optimize plant growth. Light energy must be provided but must be filtered from harmful wavelengths. Exciting possibilities for gaining insight for increasing the yield and quality of food production on Earth and establishment of self-sustaining life-support systems for people in space exist today.
Since early space exploration, astronauts experimented with growing plants. Today, industries and scientists are allowed to explore and study plant growth and long-term plant production on the International Space Station. They seek systems with high energy conversion efficiency. Establishment of the Space Station enabled agriculture in space to enter a new era. Although there were technical difficulties, wheat crops have been grown and harvested in space. A Bulgarian built greenhouse enables the right conditions for plant growth, and other crops have had success. A new age of food production in space was launched, and scientists saw how space technology may assist many of the Earth's environmental problems. Interestingly, NASA scientists found micro gravity of space presents a very efficient environment for use of bacteria to enable transfer of targeted genes that affect plant immunity to diseases and pests.
To close, Eric McLamb states, "Simply put, if we can sustain food production in space, then we can sustain human life anywhere in the universe. Plants, like all living things, depend on nourishment and the right living conditions in order to grow. And with a burgeoning population on Earth, Astroculture benefits will help us better provide food, sustenance, and required healthy ecosystems essential to promoting public health." Astroculture connects people directly with components necessary to the web of life. While challenges are great, opportunities are greater, and U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and agriculture have an exciting future III space.
This essay was part of a 2003 essay contest sponsored by Council for Agricultural Science & Technology. Click here to see how essays were selected.