Growth chamber made at USU

Vegetables will be grown in space for astronauts

By Matthew Flitton
The Standard-Examiner
May 25, 2002

LOGAN — Students in Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory are helping astronauts on the international space station to eat better.

ROBERT JOHNSON/Standard-Examiner
Starts of mizuna, a native Russian plant similar to lettuce, are grown in a chamber at Utah State University Space Dymanics Lab in Logan.

A group of scientists from the Russian Institute of Bio-Medical Problems were in Logan last week to do tests on LADA, a small growth chamber where astronauts will grow mizuna, a type of lettuce native to Russia. One unit should be able to grow 10 plants each month during the five years the units will be used on the space station.

According to a news release, LADA was named after the ancient Russian goddess of spring, but those working on the project offer other reasons.

"The group wanted people to understand we were going to have as cost efficient unit as possible, so it was named after a cheap Russian car," said Jedediah Solomon, a biologist with the project.

To that end, USU students working in the SDL did most of the actual work. They bent aluminum for boxes, they "cannibalized" connectors from R.C. Willey, tested soaker hoses from Wal-Mart (they didn"t work out) and spent a fair amount of time in hardware stores and on the Internet looking for things they could use on the project.

The result is two growth chambers that look like small blue medicine cabinets, a control unit and a 5-liter container of water. All told, the hardware weighs about 77 pounds. While they're not certain of the exact cost, Gail Bingham, LADA program manager at the lab said the units cost much less than the growth labs made for the MIR space station.

"We were able to build this so inexpensively by using off-the-shelf parts and slave labor (interns)," he said.

Inside the chambers, seeds are placed inside "wicks." These are folded clothes. Around the wicks, is a brown clay material similar to cat box litter. In the box above, cameras, thermometers and devices for measuring humidity track the growth conditions. A computer about twice the size of a Palm Pilot on top of the control unit will send pictures of the plants back to Logan each day.

The growth stations will allow astronauts to conduct experiments on how plants will grow in zero gravity, as well as eat some of the produce, giving them some variety from the average freeze-dried space diet.

"When I go backpacking with my boys, they can handle freeze-dried food for about five days, then they're ready for home," Bingham said.

Bingham said other plants will be grown on the station later. Dwarf rice, tomatoes and peppers are on the list for future space gardens.

"What we look for are small plants that have a high yield," he said.

Igor Podolskiy, senior scientist for the Russian institute, said he enjoys working with USU's Space Dynamics Lab.

"We have had many successful experiments with SDL, including projects on MIR," he said in the news release.

Jamon Nielson is one of the interns who helped make the units. He hopes one day to be on the receiving end of this food chain as an astronaut.

"Doing stuff like this is good experience for that," he said.