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May 29, 2012 8:12 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find someone doing R and D for growing food off planet?

I am producing a TEDx event in August entitled "Food and Food Systems in the 21st Century" I've got global and local issues covered I am now looking for physicists, etc. who are researching and developing ways of growing food off planet i.e. space colonies, space travel, etc.

Shooting blanks here at Caltech and JPL. Is there a way for lay person to approach NASA and find out? Help!
posted by goalyeehah to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Harrison Schmitt is a former NASA astronaut and geologist (and climate science critic) who has proposed some using lunar helium for nuclear power....and I think at one point I heard something about space colony stuff from him, but I can't find it now. Maybe he's co-authored with someone along those lines.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:25 PM on May 29, 2012


I've long been interested in this topic. Unfortunately I'm away from my home office/library with the books that would help you out, but I may be able to come back later and give you some better links. For now, here are some pointers to a few areas you will sadly have to research on your own:

1. For many years, Utah State University had NASA funding to conduct research for food production systems for the space program. They were looking ahead for a lunar/Martian base. Not sure if USU is still doing this or not, but there was a lot of material published. It should be out there somewhere. I recall they did a lot of development for strains of wheat that they hoped might grow in a micro-gravity environment.
2. The Soviets did a lot of research, too (obviously) in the 1960s. They focused on growing plants under artificial lights, and made some important practical discoveries on production of effective hydroponic fertilizers from human urine.
3. Returning to the US, one of the best NASA scientists in this topic was a man named....uh.... Wolverton (?) I think. I'll have to wait till I get home and can look at his books. He retired from NASA 20 years ago and runs a consulting business in Missouri or Mississippi (one of those squiggly-eastern states that starts with an "M", anyway) with his son. I just remembered you can find him easily by the title of one of his books, which was (I think) "How to Grow Fresh Air". Also has more technical publications, like a book about biological artificial ecosystems for wastewater treatment.
4. An old-fashioned term for this line of research is something like Closed Ecological Life Support Systems. The acronym works out to something like CELSS or something like that. NASA threw a moderate amount of funding around in the 90s to several different institutions under this moniker.
5. Although it has a bad reputation now, some of the people involved in the Biosphere II project were real, serious scientists. Lynn Margolis (again, spelling uncertain) was a biologist based in Hawaii who you definitely need to read about. Of course, some of the biosphere people were dirty ignorant hippies, but don't let that deter you from finding the serious work that was done there.
6. Here is an odd one. The American Society of Automotive Engineers (!) published a book on "Terraforming". It only had one print run, and it took me many many years to acquire my own copy (and I ended up paying more than $100 for it). But it is a scientific look at what might be needed to do large scale geoengineering projects to alter ecosystems, possibly up to the planetary level.

Well, there are a few pointers. They may or may not be helpful. Good luck with your research! If I have time, I'll try to update with some real links when I get back to a better computer.
posted by seasparrow at 8:52 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would think that current developments in hydroponics and aeroponics would be where you should be looking -- the techniques used there would certainly be the same ones refined for use in offplanet soil-less environments, even if it were zero-g or in a structure with spin to simulate gravity.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:16 PM on May 29, 2012


For an actual outer-space plant-growing experience, go through Astronaut Don Pettit's archives on Fragile Oasis, specifically his "Diary of a Space Zucchini" blog posts, and follow @Astro_Zuc on twitter. They chronicle the attempts at growing sunflower, broccoli and zucchini in zero gravity on the International Space Station, with all the challenges and surprises along the way. It's written from the POV of the zucchini, which is meant to be more playful and engaging, but Pettit also includes a lot of details about the "tea" being fed to the plants, how they had to tweak the formula, and how the plants are doing in their environment. It's fascinating stuff.
posted by therewolf at 9:31 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Starvos is right, hydro & aeroponics will likely be a critical component, due to density, efficiency, water use, etc.... I work for a major hydroponic nutrient company, and would be happy to connect you with our founder and R&D team if you'd like. MeMail me.
posted by gofargogo at 9:31 AM on May 30, 2012


Bioserve Space Technologies at the University of Colorado has been working on growing stuff in space for more than 20 years.
posted by penguinicity at 11:16 AM on May 30, 2012


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