News

USU space garden is set for launch

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
September 25, 2002

Students and professors at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory anxiously awaited Wednesday's scheduled launch of the latest USU contribution to life in space — salad.

Well, maybe it's not salad yet. But the space lab designed and constructed a high-tech experimental greenhouse that Russian cosmonauts will use to grow vegetables aboard their section of the International Space Station.

"Lada," a small, relatively inexpensive growth chamber, is named after the ancient Russian goddess of spring.

Lada was to be launched from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome (which is in Kazakhstan) aboard an unmanned Progress 9 space freighter. In four days, Progress 9 is to dock with the space station high above Earth.

Cosmonauts will have access to the chamber so they can grow vegetables to supplement their own meals, or just for recreational gardening, said USU's Gail Bingham, program manager for the project. He said the project has allowed SDL scientists to build a good working relationship with their Russian counterparts.

The first plant grown in the greenhouse will be mizuna, a Russian native species that is similar to lettuce. According to USU, it's a tall plant that can grow to 8 inches in three weeks. Later, other edibles may be raised in the growth chamber, possibly including tomatoes, peppers and rice.

Shane Topham, a Space Dynamics Lab employee working toward a graduate degree, said people at SDL are "real excited about it."

They originally thought the launch would be next Saturday. But instead, it was rescheduled for Wednesday. Team members are watching an Internet countdown at www.space.com/missionlaunches/launches/next_launch.html.

Topham, a resident of Providence, Cache County, said he began working on the project about 2 1/2 years ago, and kept busy with it until a few months ago, "when we delivered the flight hardware to Russia."

Inside the chamber, plant seeds are placed in a wick-like structure. The wick is pressed into a clay material, something like cat litter, that contains nutrients.

"Then when you water it, the water will distribute evenly into that clay, soak up into that wick," Topham said.

The hours leading up to the launch are an exciting time, he added. "This is what I've been living and breathing for the last two years, besides going to school."

Lada is a follow up to a growth chamber that USU maintained on the former Russian space station Mir.