Home Multiplanetary Future NASA needs makers to design a garden for space food

NASA needs makers to design a garden for space food

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson harvested another crop of Tokyo Bekana cabbage on the International Space Station. | Image: NASA

Deep space travelers are going to need a portable food supply, and long-term sustainability isn’t practical if everything they will eat over the course of years at a time has to be brought from Earth. With this in mind, NASA has now issued a challenge to all makers located in the US with garden and engineering know-how to come up with their best solutions for space food.

The Grow Beyond Earth (GBE) program was created by Florida-based Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in partnership with NASA to help reinvent systems used to grow edible plants on the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. Over the course of three years and three phases, makers will be challenged to use available plant growing space efficiently, maintain them without human intervention, and design a fully automated robotic planting and harvesting system, all for use aboard a spacecraft.

Phase I of the contest requires the submission of an Instructibles.com entry demonstrating new designs and strategies for growing plants aboard the ISS. Specifically, a winning entry must adhere to the volumetric constraints (a 50cm cube), contain all necessary features for plant growth, and use the space in an inventive and effective manner, according to NASA’s website outlining the contest.

Entries to the contest will be assessed and judged by NASA engineers and botanists, and winners will be given $500 gift cards and move on to the next phase. Applications are due by February 3, 2020.

NASA’s astronauts aboard the ISS currently utilize the VEGGIE (Vegetable Production System) developed by Orbital Technologies Corp. to grow and run experiments with plants in space. It was designed to be simple to use and provide high growth volume, all while using very little resources, especially square footage. While astronauts have been mostly successful in their efforts using VEGGIE, NASA is looking to expand on the technology with even more production and efficiency as the agency’s human missions to the Moon and Mars make progress.

Aside from running its contest with NASA, Fairchild is also opening a makerspace for off-planet food solutions inside its facility this summer. Their website describing the new “Innovation Studio” provides the following details about the initiative:

The GBE Innovation Studio…will be equipped with high-end design software and fabrication technology including 3D printing, CNC, laser cutting, and electronics equipment. Within the Innovation Studio, makers will create and test various designs, adhering to NASA specifications and utilizing the resources of botanic knowledge at Fairchild, to produce optimal results for the next generation of plant growth systems for long distance space travel.

Overall, Fairchild’s Grow Beyond Earth program looks to be a good start towards inspiring everyday citizens and students alike to take part in the new space economy that’s fast approaching.

JANE’S OPINION

I love programs that give the general population an opportunity to participate in space projects. STEM school initiatives are great, but there is also a huge number of working adults who would be very happy to participate in a space economy, given the chance. Working in an office or retail or running a small business and so forth – all of those jobs have people participating in functions that can be translated to a multiplanetary future. Those voices should be included and offered the opportunity to get involved on a regular basis.