Feeding astronauts during long-term space exploration means stretching resources to grow plants in space, including minimizing water use and energy consumption and eliminating soil.
NASA initially pioneered these techniques on the ground by building the country’s first vertical farm. Inside a decommissioned hypobaric chamber that was left over from testing the Mercury space capsule, technologists stacked rows of hydroponic trays like bookshelves against the walls. Then systems for lighting, ventilation, and circulating water were added using off-the-shelf parts. Various crops were planted on the stacked trays to test how well they would grow in water and without the benefit of sunlight or open air.
Redefining data farm
“The entire industry is built on NASA research,” said Storey. Since its early days, NASA has explored bioregenerative life-support systems, with plants recycling waste, producing food and oxygen, and eliminating carbon dioxide. The Closed Ecological Life Support System program originated with the Life Sciences Division at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, funding university research to identify the best plants and their ideal growth conditions, and the agency built growth chambers to expand on those findings.
The interior of the Biomass Production Chamber at Kennedy replicated the closed growing environment astronauts will use in space or on other planets to grow fresh crops. As the first controlled environment vertical farm in the United States, the chamber helped NASA provide critical data for the indoor farming industry. NASA scientists Bill Knott, left, and Tom Dreschel examine the growth of crops. Credits: NASA
“Growing crops is a multi-functional life-support approach,” said Ray Wheeler, a plant physiologist at NASA Kennedy, “but we needed to answer the question, can you do this in a closed environment like you have in space?”
Wheeler conducted multiple growth experiments in the Biomass Production Chamber, built in the 1980s. He said years of experimentation produced a “firehose of data,” all of which was made public. From that work, Plenty adopted a type of 'nutrient film technique' that the agency pioneered. This soil-free hydroponic system circulates a constant, minimal film of water around seedlings, containing all the necessary nutrients.
The approach produces fresher, healthier, more flavorful plants. Uniformity of lighting along with data-driven controls over all other variables tied to a plant community makes growth rates and output predictable, according to Storey. Harvesting young plants while they are more tender and flavorful means the produce tastes better than plants that are allowed to fully mature. Because the time from farm to table is dramatically shorter, the plants retain the freshness and nutritive value typically lost during long-haul transportation.
By controlling every element of the environment, Plenty can avoid using harmful chemicals like pesticides and herbicides that also impact plant health.
Green Sense uses LED lights in its vertical farms, adjusting the mix of red and blue light for each plant species. Lane Patterson, chief engineer, examines the successful cultivation of Italian basil. Patterson gained valuable experience in indoor farming when he worked at the South Pole Station, operating an indoor growth chamber that was partly funded by NASA. Credits: Green Sense Farms Holding Inc.
Different plants require different balances of water, nutrients, light, airflow, and more. NASA studied and documented ideal conditions for dozens of species, and now Green Sense Farm Holdings is using that research on Earth.
The company provides contract R&D services for plant-growth optimization in its climate-controlled vertical farm, which uses software to optimize conditions and collect plant-growth data.
Inside abandoned city buildings, Bowery Farming builds vertical farms that provide fresh produce to local retailers and restaurants. The closed system produces food all year, eliminating the problems that limit outdoor farming such as drought, winter temperatures, and bug infestations. Credits: Bowery Farming Inc.
Robert Colangelo, Green Sense president, said one example is testing the ratio of red to blue in LED lights, their intensity, and how long they shine. This approach, based on NASA research, means using only the light wavelengths a plant needs, which reduces electricity consumption.
Bowery Farming builds urban vertical farms, based on NASA’s data-driven model, built into existing structures such as vacant warehouses, and distributes produce locally to restaurants and grocery stores. The company constantly monitors crops and conditions to maintain an ideal environment, said Henry Sztul, chief science officer.
Bowery’s system uses artificial intelligence to make sense of crop data and manage growth cycles. Just as a person can learn to identify tip burn on a leaf of butter lettuce, computers can be taught the same kind of recognition. Using thousands of photographs, computers learn to identify problems and automatically adjust parts of the system, said Sztul.
Additional NASA expertise comes in the way of trained staff: several Bowery employees worked on NASA-funded plant tests in a simulated space habitat in Antarctica, as did the chief engineer at Green Sense Farms.
Vertical farms are not the only CEA businesses benefiting from NASA research. Potato farmers now use nutrient film techniques in greenhouses. The agency first pioneered this method for root zone crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, said Wheeler, and it’s proven itself with record-breaking potato yields.
CSS Farms uses this technique to grow seed potatoes called minitubers in greenhouses. Unlike plants grown from seed, potatoes are grown from either cut potatoes or minitubers. These can be shipped and planted in fields, where they grow into plants that produce large potatoes for consumption.
CSS Farms uses a type of hydroponic growing system called nutrient film technique, developed by NASA to cultivate potato plants, peanuts, and other root crops. The company’s greenhouses are a different kind of controlled environment agriculture, relying on fresh air and sunlight to support the growing process, but data and technology still play an important role. Credits: CSS Farms LLC
Soil-growing methods typically yield five or six minitubers per plant. “We’ll harvest two or three times a week for a 12-week harvest period in three crops per year. In a nutrient film system, you can get 30 to 50 minitubers per plant,” said Matt Barrow, greenhouse manager with CSS Farms.
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