Space to Ground: Florida Students Learn About Growing Plants in Orbit

Trent Smith, Veggie project manager, speaks to high school students Wednesday about growing plants on the International Space Station at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. During the event, students in central Florida spoke to NASA researchers, while students in Miami who had participated in The Fairchild Challenge spoke in real time to astronauts on the space station about the challenges of living and growing food in space.
Trent Smith, Veggie project manager, speaks to high school students Wednesday about growing plants on the International Space Station at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. During the event, students in central Florida spoke to NASA researchers, while students in Miami who had participated in The Fairchild Challenge spoke in real time to astronauts on the space station about the challenges of living and growing food in space. Photo credit: NASA

Students in Florida asked questions of NASA scientists on the ground and astronauts on the International Space Station to learn more about how the agency is pioneering the cultivation of plants in space to supplement astronaut diets with fresh, nutritious food. These students have directly bolstered researchers’ knowledge in the field of space plant science by participating in the Growing Beyond Earth part of The Fairchild Challenge, which has promoted education focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by engaging students to test more than 100 varieties of edible plants during the past three years for their potential viability on the space station.

Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory use the Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie, to study plants. These experiments also have a practical side. Not only do the plants augment the astronauts’ diet with fresh food, according to astronauts, tending the crops is a source of enjoyment and a little piece of home for the crew.

Nicole Figueroa, a Pine Ridge High School student, speaks with Gioia Massa, a life sciences project scientist at KSC, after an event that highlighted NASA’s partnership with The Fairchild Challenge to efforts to identify plants suitable for growing in space.
Nicole Figueroa, a Pine Ridge High School student, speaks with Gioia Massa, a life sciences project scientist at KSC, after an event that highlighted NASA’s partnership with The Fairchild Challenge to efforts to identify plants suitable for growing in space. Photo credit: NASA

Hundreds of high school students from eight schools in central Florida came to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where NASA treated them to a presentation by Gioia Massa, a life sciences project scientist at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center, and Trent Smith, Veggie project manager, along with university students who are interns at NASA also working on growing plants for space. The high school students then had the opportunity to ask the team questions, which covered topics as diverse as using Martian soil for growing plants, to the viability of growing trees in space.

As he answered questions, Smith said working with 150 schools nationwide through The Fairchild Challenge was a tremendous benefit to NASA. Students have identified several strong candidate crops including extra dwarf pak choi and dragoon lettuce, which are undergoing final testing to determine if they are suitable for space.

“I hope to send them up in a resupply spacecraft very soon, giving astronauts new selections to grow and eat in space,” Smith said.

Massa told the crowd that The Fairchild Challenge participants had not only evaluated other promising plant varieties including Shungiku, an edible Chrysanthemum, but they had also tested horticultural techniques like cut-and-come-again which is a repetitive harvest that can increase overall food yield. She said the entire program was “a wonderful collaboration” between NASA and students.

Attention then shifted to South Florida as hundreds of Miami students who had participated in the Growing Beyond Earth portion of the Fairchild Challenge visited the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for a live downlink with crew members aboard the space station.

As part of their Year of Education on Station activities, astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel fielded questions from the students and talked about some of the challenges of living in microgravity and trying to grow space plants.

Students including Ashton Santos from Colonial High School in Orlando expressed excitement for being able to come to the visitor complex and learning directly from the people behind the science. “This experience was really valuable to me, and it really piqued my interest about agriculture in space,” Santos said. “I hope that I can find out more, and maybe I can be one of the interns there,” he added.

Camile Mason, another Colonial High School student, had the opportunity to ask the Veggie team a question and said the visit was an exciting experience. “It was very insightful,” Mason said. “It was very interesting learning about how scientists developed and changed the way we can look at agriculture even here on Earth, and how we can study and mimic conditions out in space, here.”

Written by Leejay Lockhart

Video of activities at KSC

Video of NASA downlink activities

We Have the Wheat!

The first growth test of crops in the Advanced Plant Habitat aboard the International Space Station yielded great results.
The first growth test of crops in the Advanced Plant Habitat aboard the International Space Station yielded great results. Photo credit: NASA

The first growth test of crops in the Advanced Plant Habitat aboard the International Space Station yielded great results this week. Arabidopsis seeds – small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard – grew for about six weeks, and the dwarf wheat for five weeks.

This growth test was a precursor to the start of an investigation known as PH-01, which will grow five different types of Arabidopsis and is scheduled to launch in May on Orbital ATK’s ninth commercial resupply mission to the space station.

“The first growth test demonstrated the plant habitat can grow large plants within an environmentally controlled system,” said Bryan Onate, Advanced Plant Habitat project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “The systems performed well in microgravity, and the team learned many valuable lessons on operating this payload on station.”

The plant habitat is now ready to support large plant testing on the space station. A fully enclosed, closed-loop system with an environmentally controlled growth chamber, it uses red, blue and green LED lights, as well as broad-spectrum white LED lights. The system’s more than 180 sensors will relay real-time information, including temperature, oxygen content and moisture levels back to the team on the ground at NASA Kennedy.

SpaceX CRS-13 Launch Set For No Earlier Than Dec. 12

The Canadarm 2 reaches out to grapple a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft and prepare it to be pulled into its port on the International Space Station. Dragon was installed on the Harmony module where remained for the next five weeks. Photo credit: NASA
The Canadarm 2 reaches out to grapple a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft and prepare it to be pulled into its port on the International Space Station. Dragon was installed on the Harmony module where remained for the next five weeks.
Photo credit: NASA

NASA and our commercial cargo provider SpaceX are targeting no earlier than Dec. 12 at 11:46 a.m. EST for their 13th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. This new launch date takes into account pad readiness, requirements for science payloads, space station crew availability, and orbital mechanics. Carrying about 4,800 pounds of cargo including critical science and research, the Dragon spacecraft will spend a month attached to the space station.

Growing Beyond Earth Challenge Germinates in South Florida

Kennedy scientists Trent Smith, left, and Dr. Gioia Massa speak to middle and high school teachers at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami during the kickoff of the 2017-2018 Fairchild Challenge-Growing Beyond Earth.
Kennedy scientists Trent Smith, left, and Dr. Gioia Massa speak to middle and high school teachers at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami during the kickoff of the 2017-2018 Fairchild Challenge-Growing Beyond Earth. Photo credit: NASA

The annual 2017-2018 Fairchild Challenge Growing Beyond Earth recently kicked off at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami. For the past three years, plant researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida have been partnering with Fairchild to create STEM-based challenges for teachers and students in the area. More than 130 middle and high school teachers participated in the opening workshop Sept. 30. Kennedy scientists Dr. Gioia Massa and Trent Smith taught teachers about food production in space and NASA’s Veggie plant growth system currently aboard the International Space Station.

Veggie is a system that allows astronauts to grow plants and crops — some of which they can eat. Veggie is an important demonstration of how NASA applies science across disciplines — in this case Space Biology to grow a healthy crop and Human Research to ensure astronauts remain healthy — to enable human space exploration.

At the end of the workshop, teachers received mini botany labs their students will use to participate in the project during the current school year. Each lab is meant to be managed like Veggie’s hardware on station. Students have to follow research protocols set forth by NASA and Fairchild while testing factors that could influence plant growth, flavor and nutrition — all so they can help NASA pick the next crops to grow for the astronauts aboard the station.

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Advanced Plant Habitat Verification Test Complete

John "JC" Carver, a payload integration engineer with NASA Kennedy Space Center's Test and Operations Support Contract, uses a FluorPen to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants inside the growth chamber of the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) Flight Unit No. 1.
John “JC” Carver, a payload integration engineer with NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Test and Operations Support Contract, uses a FluorPen to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants inside the growth chamber of the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) Flight Unit No. 1. Half the plants were then harvested. Photo credit: NASA/Leif Heimbold

After a month of growing plants in the Advanced Plant Habitat Flight Unit No. 1, the chamber was opened and half of the yield was harvested by Kennedy Space Center payload engineers and scientists. The Arabidopsis thaliana seeds that were grown during the test are small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard that have a short lifecycle and small genome, making it an ideal plant model for research.

The harvest involved measuring pigment molecules of some of the plants with an instrument called a FluorPen, which will give the principal investigators empirical data on the health of the plants. Following those measurements, the stems and the rosettes (circular arrangement of leaves) of the plants were harvested separately, placed inside a foil packet, and then placed inside a MiniCold Bag that quickly freezes the plants. The plants will be shipped to a team at Washington State University who will examine the plants, with the goal to comprehensively understand how these plants adapt to spaceflight during the PH-01 experiment on the International Space Station later this year.

The Advanced Plant Habitat was sent to the space station in two shipments on the Orbital ATK OA-7 and SpaceX CRS-11 resupply missions. The Advanced Plant Habitat will be set up on the space station this fall and is an enclosed, closed-loop system with an environmentally controlled chamber. The habitat will use red, blue, green and broad-spectrum white LED lights and have 180 sensors to relay information back to the team at Kennedy.

Support and funding for the Advanced Plant Habitat are provided by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division.

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Advanced Plant Habitat Readied for Science

Advanced Plant HabitatThe Advanced Plant Habitat Flight Unit No. 1 that will be used for ground testing the agency’s newest plant habitat arrived at Kennedy Space Center on July 17. Over the past couple of weeks, the unit has undergone numerous inspections and checkout procedures and is now undergoing an Experiment Verification Test. This test, started on July 27, will allow the ground team at Kennedy to run through the procedures of the future Plant Habitat 01 Mission, or PH-01, that will grow aboard the International Space Station later this year. Both the test and the actual mission will grow Arabidopsis seeds, which are small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard.

The Advanced Plant Habitat was sent to the space station in two shipments on the Orbital ATK OA-7 and SpaceX CRS-11 resupply missions. Once it is set up, it will be a fully automated facility that will be used to conduct plant bioscience research. The Advanced Plant Habitat is an enclosed, closed-loop system with an environmentally controlled chamber. The habitat will use red, blue, green and broad-spectrum white LED lights and have 180 sensors to relay information back to the team at Kennedy. The habitat is scheduled to be activated aboard the orbiting laboratory this fall, with PH-01 beginning in late October.

Orbital ATK CRS-7 Mission Targeted for April 18 Launch

Orbital ATK's Cygnus module is mated to the Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The payload fairing containing the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized cargo module is mated to the Centaur upper stage, or second stage, of the United Launch Alliance rocket March 17 in the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo credit: United Launch Alliance

NASA, Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance (ULA) are now targeting April 18 for the launch of Orbital ATK’s seventh contracted commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. ULA has developed a plan to resolve an earlier booster hydraulic issue, and is moving forward with launch vehicle processing. Both the Atlas V rocket and Cygnus spacecraft remain secure. Several tons of cargo including crew supplies and science experiments packed aboard Cygnus remain in good shape.

Space Seed Cupboard Emptied with Cabbage Growth

At Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Veggie Project Manager Nicole Dufour instructs astronaut Peggy Whitson during the first harvest of Chinese cabbage aboard the International Space Station last month. Today begins the grow out of the second Chinese cabbage crop aboard the orbiting laboratory.
At Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Veggie Project Manager Nicole Dufour instructs astronaut Peggy Whitson during the first harvest of Chinese cabbage aboard the International Space Station last month. Today begins the grow out of the second Chinese cabbage crop aboard the orbiting laboratory.
Photo credit: NASA

Today, astronaut Peggy Whitson will pull out her gardening tools once again to initiate the next crop of Chinese cabbage to be grown aboard the International Space Station. This crop will be the second Chinese cabbage and the sixth crop grown in the Veggie system. The leafy greens will be allowed to grow for two months while Whitson periodically harvests leaves for crew enjoyment as well as for science. This will be the second time a space station crew has used the cut-and-come-again harvest technique intended to increase crop yield; the technique was previously used with ’Outredgeous’ lettuce.

This time around, the gardening guidance given to Whitson was revised to reflect the need for more water that was discovered during the first growth of Chinese cabbage earlier this year. According to Veggie Project Scientist Dr. Gioia Massa, every experiment provides new information as the Veggie team continues to lay the groundwork for future long-duration plant growth systems.

“Our main goal for this VEG-03C crop is to grow the Chinese cabbage for a longer duration and to see how plants respond to the cut-and-come-again repetitive harvest technique we used last fall with the ‘Outredgeous’ lettuce,” Massa said. “We hope that, similar to the lettuce, astronauts will get to eat more Chinese cabbage over a longer duration as we test more sustainable growth practices for this crop.”

Although these Chinese cabbage seeds are the last ones currently aboard the orbiting laboratory, the Veggie team does plan to send up more seed pillows in the near future. What seeds will those pillows contain? The team isn’t certain just yet, but the scientists have been studying peppers, tomatoes and other leafy greens.

Stay tuned for more cosmic cuisine!

Cabbage Now on Astronaut’s Menu

Jeff Richards with Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies of the Engineering Services Contract is one of the researchers who worked on a ground test of Chinese cabbage this past summer. Photo credit: NASA
Above: Jeff Richards with Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies of the Engineering Services Contract is one of the researchers who worked on a ground test of Chinese cabbage this past summer. Below right: Veggie Project Manager Nicole Dufour provides real-time instructions to astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station as she initiates the latest Veggie experiment. Photo credits: NASA

Veggie Project Manager Nicole Dufour provides real-time instructions to astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station as she initiates the latest Veggie experiment.  Photo credit: NASAAstronaut Peggy Whitson will initiate the next round of crops to be grown aboard the International Space Station today. For the first time, a Chinese cabbage variety named Tokyo Bekana will be grown in space. The cabbage was chosen as a good candidate because it is a quick growing leafy green that is rated highly from a nutritional and taste perspective. Whitson will act as the on-orbit gardener, tending to the cabbage for about a month.

Reusable NORS Provides Fresh Air for Space Station Use

How do astronauts aboard the International Space Station get fresh oxygen for spacewalks and everyday use in the orbiting laboratory? After the space shuttle retired, NASA designed the Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System, or NORS. Once onboard, the tanks are used to fill the oxygen and nitrogen tanks that supply the needed gases to the station’s airlock for spacewalks. They are also used as a secondary method to replenish the atmosphere inside of the space station.

The tanks are fully reusable once they have been inspected after returning from space. Earlier this week, the first flight-returned NORS Recharge Tank Assembly was depressurized at Kennedy. This particular NORS tank was returned on the SpaceX CRS-9 flight after spending almost a year on station. There are currently four more tanks aboard the station that are scheduled to come down soon so they may be reused in the future.