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Science & Environment

Scientists Work To Grow Food In Space



This is Lulu's log, stardate September 17, 2017, where we consider matters of space, the stars and the universe.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eventually, when NASA astronauts are sent to explore the deep reaches of our solar system, they probably won't be able to bring everything they need for survival with them on the spaceship, like enough food and water to survive for many months or even years spent on the surface of Mars.

Gene Giacomelli has some ideas on how to address that problem. He's director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. And his team has worked with NASA to develop a kind of greenhouse so astronauts can grow crops while in space. Gene, thanks for joining me.

GENE GIACOMELLI: You're welcome. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Tell me about the project.

GIACOMELLI: We need to produce food in space because we cannot bring sufficient amounts to survive for any great extent of time. We also can put together these food systems that produce not only the calories that we need to eat and survive and the nutrition that we need to survive but also produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide that we breathe out. And they transpire. They give off water that goes into the atmosphere. And we can collect that as potable water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you describe what it looks like?

GIACOMELLI: The Mars lunar greenhouse is a cylinder. It's about 8 foot tall and about 18 feet long. It's collapsible. It's lightweight. The lights are overhead. The plants are growing in rows parallel to the long length of the greenhouse, with the lettuce greens on the innermost rows and the taller plants on the outermost rows. So we fill up as much of the volume space as possible to provide as much plant biomass so that it utilizes the electrical lamps most efficiently, meaning capturing all the light that the lamps are putting out - and then hopefully, providing sufficient amounts of food, water and oxygen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I often ask this to scientists who are involved in some part of getting humans into outer space for long periods of time and possibly, you know, making manned missions to planets. Why do you want to be involved in that?

GIACOMELLI: (Laughter) Well...


GIACOMELLI: Well, personally, I come from a background of food production - small farm in southern New Jersey. I appreciated NASA all my life. And we recognize that we have to feed people no matter where we go. And I like to think that if we can do it in that - in a system there, then we can learn to do it better here on Earth and feed ourselves more efficiently through controlled environment agriculture - one-tenth of the amount of water to grow a head of lettuce in our system compared to the open field. So there's many good reasons to take what we're learning now and apply it into agriculture here on Earth and do it as soon as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gene Giacomelli. He's director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. Thank you very much.

GIACOMELLI: Thank you very much. I appreciate this opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOG CITY'S "C418") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.