Mmm, do try some mizuna

By Arrin Brunson
The Herald Journal
June 4, 2002

Photos by Brent Stevens/HJNews

NORTH LOGAN — Although many of the comforts of home will remain thousands of miles away, astronauts aboard the International Space Station will be able to feast on fresh lettuce from a space greenhouse built at the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory.

After weeks of dining on dried food packs, garden fresh vegetables will taste out-of-this-world to the space men and women. The technology used to keep soil from floating all over the gravity-free space station was developed in large part by Utah State students and is expected to liftoff in September.

LADA, named after the ancient Russian Goddess of Spring, is an improved version of the growth chamber developed at SDL that was used for seven experiments on Mir between 1990 and 2000, according to Jamon Neilson, a recent master’s graduate of USU.

The smaller and more efficient unit costs less to build at about $50,000, requires less power and automatically controls root zone moisture with the use of sensors. The un
its are modular and can be easily adapted for a variety of experiments, Neilson said.

A fast-growing Japanese lettuce called Mizuna will be the first plant grown in space in the LADA. It can develop in the growth chamber, growing up to 8 inches in three weeks. One of the main reasons for selecting this test crop, though, is that the native crop appeals to the Russians, said Jedediah Solomon, a USU horticulture major involved in the project.

“The biggest reason we’re growing Mizuna is because the Russian cosmonauts like it,” he said. “It’s going to be in the Russian part of the space station and they’ll eat it.”

Shorter, slower growing plants, like tomato, pepper and rice can also be planted in linear rows in the growth chamber. The research is being conducted through a joint partnership with the Russian Institute of Bio-Medical Problems and two Russian scientists were at SDL last week.

The Russian alliance is necessitated by the difficulty of getting project approval through NASA, Neilson explained.

“It costs a lot and it takes a lot of time to get things up on the shuttle through NASA,” he said. “It can take seven years of waiting for them to be approved or qualify and then the cost is millions of dollars.”

Under the Russian plan, LADA will become a permanent fixture on the International Space Station with new root systems and supplies sent up as needed. SDL and Russia will have joint ownership of the hardware. Experiments using the hardware will be flown as part of the Russian scientific program with USU investigators as partners.

“We have worked with SDL and Gail Bingham for over 10-years on many different projects,” said Igor Podolskiy, Russian senior scientist for IBMP who spent last week in Cache Valley. “We have had many successful experiments with SDL, including projects on Mir.”

Gail Bingham is a senior research scientist at SDL and the LADA program manager. The technology will allow the space station crew to grow vegetables to supplement meals, as well as for recreational gardening when it is not being used for scientific experiments, Bingham said. The project has also given Utah State students tremendous opportunities, he said.

“This is a new opportunity, a new decade to start on a new series of experiments,” he said. “This is a great place for kids to come and fill their dreams to get close to flying in space. This is as close as I’ve come and probably as close as people in the next generation will come.”