By Blake Thorne
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – For the first time in the history of manned space travel, astronauts on the International Space Station are zapping sweet peppers in zero gravity with mini-heaters to break down the outer layers of the veggies into seeds.
The experiment dubbed SpacePulse, led by NASA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Advanced Technology Laboratory, aims to turn Space Station carbon dioxide into lettuce and other greens by sending plants up with astronauts.
By releasing the planet’s planet-killing greenhouse gas, researchers hope to increase the produce supply on the space station, cutting down on resource requirements for maintenance, repairs and experiments. It also has potential climate-related benefits for Earth by creating food without increasing the carbon dioxide footprint from greenhouse gas emissions.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters this week that the space agency is feeling the heat to find ways to use space to produce food on the low-Earth orbit outpost. Last month, the space agency launched a rover to Mars to look for evidence of habitability on the Red Planet.
“Imagine food that would feed 1 billion people on Mars,” Bolden said during the tour of NASA’s Human Research Program, a program of funding universities for research studies on humans in space.
But the challenges will be tall: Long-term weightlessness can significantly stress cells and machinery. What’s more, crops from space won’t have stored plant cells and stems.
“You’re starting with the raw material,” said Mary Spio, program manager for NASA’s Advanced Technology Laboratory.
And the back-breaking work of traveling to the space station will remain a barrier to producing the equivalent of three pounds of vegetables – the amount astronauts on the station need for a full-year’s worth of healthy, but low-nutrient food on average.
Satellites also can be upstaged by a more easily produced substitute, the NASA administrator said.
“We have 2 billion people on Earth, and yet we have about half that production capacity for producing foods on Earth compared to what we have on a spaceship,” Bolden said.
The International Space Station became the first lab to carry a greenhouse – a tiny garden – out to orbit in 2009.
But astronauts have had little other opportunity to experiment with horticulture. Because the space station orbits the planet twice a day, the growing season is limited.
NASA says the process of growing foods in space is not simple. “By keeping up a constant body temperature and humidity, astronauts have to be careful to avoid harmful, rusting fungus and bacteria that could grow and cause a crisis,” according to a NASA-funded study.
The Planetary Society, an advocacy group, said the experiment is a “small but significant demonstration of sustainability, involving a life-sustaining process that the Earth might be able to do with equal or greater precision,” according to a statement.
The space station’s small inflatable greenhouse, the largest to fly in space, was built to grow crops for astronauts’ own use. But because zero gravity cuts the solar energy output by 73 percent, the greenhouse cells run a deficit about 300 days a year, scientists found.
On the space station, it typically costs about $1,000 per pound to fuel the habitat, 1/200th of the cost of low-earth orbit at nearly 14 times the velocity, according to NASA.