USU experiment feeds astronauts' minds, taste buds

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
June 16, 2003

Last month cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko had an unusual duty for someone orbiting 240 miles above the green fields of Earth: picking a crop of fresh peas.

Malenchenko, commander of the two-man crew, gathered the legumes from a growing chamber called Lada, designed and built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan.

The other resident of the station, American astronaut Ed Liu, wasn't called on for the fun of space farming. That might be because Lada is a joint project between Russia's space program and USU.

This is the third crop for the device, named after the ancient Russian goddess of spring. The first was a lettuce from Russia, mizuna, which did well.

"It was kind of a test-out crop because it's a real hardy plant," said Shane Topham, the USU electrical engineer who designed and built Lada. "It's really hard to kill."

The cosmonauts who tended the mizuna in their Zvezda Service Module are allowed to eat half of what they grow. The rest is used for further experimentation, like the peas that will be planted to grow a second space crop.

They ate the lettuce and "they liked it," Topham said.

Cosmonauts sent home videos of themselves harvesting their unearthly garden and eating the lettuce. They enjoyed a real treat — fresh greens, not something squeezed out of a tube like toothpaste.

For Lada's second experiment, tomatoes were planted, but then the station experienced a crop failure. Sensors failed when the tomato seeds were starting to germinate, resulting in over-watering. The plants did not grow well, the experiment was canceled and the sprouts were pulled out.

Next on the menu was peas.

A new root-growth module reached the station via a Russian supply rocket, the peas were planted and "the seeds are doing really well," said Topham.

NASA's Tony Phillips explained on an Internet posting that the harvested peas will be used to grow a second generation. "If all goes well, they'll become the first legumes to reproduce in Earth orbit," he added.

"Can space-faring peas produce viable seeds? We'll soon find out."

Another experiment besides the physical achievement of growing plants in space would be a psychological study, Topham said.

Allowing people in orbit to enjoy growing greenery could have psychological benefits, he believes. Indications are that he's right.

"The cosmonauts that are up there now took more interest in our experiments than in some of the other experiments," he said. "They were real interested in it because they were going to be able to eat it."