Growing vegetables an essential part of astronaut self-care

Polar night is finally over at Neumayer Station III, a remote research station perched on Antarctica’s Ekstrom Ice Shelf. For almost 64 days, the 10 members of the skeleton winter crew, the overwinterers—a cook, a doctor, and eight engineers and researchers—did not see the sun.

For those 63 days, 23 hours, and 18 minutes, perpetual darkness was broken only by brief periods of twilight, when the sun approached but did not rise above the horizon. Average temperatures in June and July fluctuate between 0 and -24 degrees Fahrenheit, and the station is often pounded by winds that can exceed 100 kilometers per hour. A webcam of the station feeds photos to a live stream every 10 minutes, but during snowstorms, it may not be possible to see the station at all.

These extreme conditions make the Ekstrom Ice Shelf an ideal setting to test the technology that could one day allow humans to grow food in inhospitable settings like the moon or Mars. Additionally, the extreme isolation of Neumayer Station and its residents make them ideal subjects in a study of how fresh produce could impact the well-being of astronauts during long-haul space travel.

That’s right: It’s not just the technology that allows us to grow food without sun, soil, or rain under the microscope. Jess Bunchek, a plant scientist from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and the other crew members are subjects of a survey meant to assess how working in the greenhouse and eating fresh produce affects their mental state and well-being. The crew also had pictures of their brain taken by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine before traveling to Antarctica. After they return, their brains will be photographed again to see how they changed over time. Researchers will also look at cognitive and biochemical changes in the blood and saliva.

“It’s a very harsh external environment,” said Ray Wheeler, a plant physiologist with Kennedy’s Exploration Research and Technology program, who has been on the project’s advisory board from the beginning. “You’re very isolated as a human crew so that gives you the kind of analog, or the situation that you want to compare with, say, a space crew."

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