Teachers in Miami-Dade County gathered this weekend at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden to get new materials that could one day help take humans deeper into space. And if all goes well, it could provide a meal for the classroom.
The Growing Beyond Earth project is a partnership between NASA and Fairchild. Currently in its fifth year, middle and high school students have been helping NASA perform real research about which foods can best grow in the International Space Station — and someday — beyond.
“At this point a couple of the crops that the students have selected have actually gone through our entire process and made it to the space station,” said Gioia Massa, a space crop scientist for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center.
Last year, astronauts grew and ate varieties of dwarf bok choy and dragoon lettuce, purely based on the research students provided.
135 schools in Miami-Dade County have been given free boxes to grow food and test with, all within specific protocols developed by Fairchild and NASA. High schools are also participating in Broward and Palm Beach counties, as well as schools in Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico.
The data gathered by the students is shared with NASA over Google Sheets, and researchers pour over the results, certifying results at Kennedy Space Center before sending seeds and instructions up to astronauts at the International Space Station.
“We’re looking for things that grow well in a small space, about two foot square, things that produce a large amount of edible biomass, things that have lots of vitamins that are not found in the processed diet, and also plants that have really strong flavors,” said Amy Padolf, the director of education at Fairchild. “When you’re in zero gravity, it’s like you have a head cold all the time, so your taste buds get muted.”
“No one goes to space for the food,” laughed Trent Smith, a NASA vegetable project manager. “So this definitely helps.”
Massa stressed that beyond nutrition and a bit of zest for the palate, there’s a psychological aspect of having astronauts grow plants they can eat. Anecdotally, NASA knows that taking care of plants can have a positive impact on crew members. NASA is currently surveying them to try to put harder data on the benefits of being around plants in such an inorganic space, but also looking at possible negative factors.
“If your plants got sick or died, how would that make the crew feel? Anyone who has gardened knows how that can impact you,” she said. “We really want to understand these impacts in the context of being in a space station.”
In the classroom, teachers who have participated in the program said it is popular among students.
“My students love the fact that there’s really only two degrees of separation between them and the International Space Station,” said Andrew Kearns, the mathematics chair at Jose Marti Mast 6-12 Academy in Hialeah. “The research that they’re doing here is really at the grassroots level of what can feed us in space — in a space station, on the moon, on Mars — and I really think that they do see that big picture.”
“The students feel like they’re contributing so something that’s bigger than just the school or the classroom. They feel like they’re doing something really big,” said Desiree Rodriguez, a teacher at West Miami Middle School.
The work that students are doing in their classrooms in collaboration with Fairchild is really about laying the groundwork for more lunar exploration and ultimately a trip to Mars, said Ralph Fritsche, the space crop production manager for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center.
Over long periods of time, packaged foods that astronauts get starts to lose its nutritional value. That poses a real question about how viable multi-year trips can be, the deeper into space we go.
“It’s a real risk to crew health and performance, and we have to go in and figure ‘how can I bolster that?’” said Fritsche. “Naturally we’re trying to extend the prepackaged food, but as a benchmark to be able to help buy down that risk, we want to also add fresh foods to it.”