Figuring out how to feed people in space is a major part of a larger effort to demonstrate the viability of long-term human habitation of extraterrestrial environments. On May 12, 2022, a team of scientists announced that they had successfully grown plants using lunar soil gathered during the Apollo moon missions. But this is not the first time that scientists have attempted to grow plants in soils that typically do not support life.
I am a historian of Antarctic science. How to grow plants and food in the far southern reaches of Earth has been an active area of research for more than 120 years. These efforts have helped further understanding of the many challenges of agriculture in extreme environments and eventually led to limited but successful plant cultivation in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to explicitly look at this research as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.
In 2004, the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center collaborated to build the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. The project was designed to test the idea of controlled-environment agriculture – a means of maximizing plant growth while minimizing resource use. According to its architects, the facility closely mimicked the conditions of a Moon base and provided “an analog on Earth for some of the issues that will arise when food production is moved to space habitations.” This facility continues to provide the South Pole Station with supplementary food.
Since building the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the University of Arizona has collaborated with NASA to build a similar Prototype, Lunar Greenhouse.
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