News

SDL Receives Contract to Research Plants for Space Travel

USURF
February 20, 2004

LOGAN – In preparation for current and future space endeavors, NASA awarded the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) a $750 thousand contract to research the best types of vegetables to grow in space, how to clean them and the psychological effects they have on astronauts and cosmonauts.

“We are saving NASA millions of dollars by building off the existing technology we have developed with our Russian partners,” said Gail Bingham, Ph.D., chief scientist at SDL.

SDL, a unit of Utah State University Research Foundation, teamed with the Russian Institute of Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP), built and operated the Svet growth chamber used on the Mir station. More recently the team developed Lada, a small growth chamber hosted in the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS).

This NASA contract will use Lada hardware to perform research to aid in developing procedures for a future large-scale growth chamber called the Vegetable Production Unit. Bingham said this is a new direction for space plant research.

“This is really what we built Lada for,” he said. “This is its first baseball game. It is going to be a really fun project.”

The contract involves three areas. The first is to research different types of plants and to check the plants’ yields on the ground using Lada. SDL will then verify the plant yields performing the same experiments using Lada on the ISS.

Food safety and diet needs are the second aspect of the NASA contract. SDL will perform research on the different types of plants to satisfy nutritional needs and different cultural backgrounds. To ensure astronaut health, SDL will work with the USDA to develop procedures for cleaning the vegetables for consumption.

“Dirty fingerprints may be harmful to astronauts, so we are working out new procedures that will wash the lettuce or vegetable grown that will ensure food safety,” said Bingham. “This protocol that may be used in growth chambers on the International Space Station, the Moon, Mars and the transit vehicles used to get there.”

The third aspect of the contract and the most important according to Bingham is the study of the psychological benefits the plants have on crew members. Jack Stuster, Ph.D. principle scientist of Anacapa Sciences will be working closely with SDL to evaluate the astronauts’ journals to determine the psychological effects of vegetable production in space.

“This is where we determine what the real value of plants in space. When we factor in the psychology of the astronauts, I believe plant development will come out to be of higher value than just shipping dehydrated food from the ground,” said Bingham. “No one else has done this before – it is a first.”

The contract is a three-year study. Other team members include Bruce Bugbee, Ph.D., of Utah State University’s plants, soils and biometeorology department and Jay Garland, Ph.D., of Dynamac Corporation at Kennedy Space Center. SDL will also be working cooperatively with the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center at Ames, Iowa.

“I am happy to see it happening. Now we have a mission that will actually allow us to use our expertise to help NASA managers and people designing future space travel projects,” said Bingham.