Science & Technology

UW-Madison Researchers Work With Astronauts To Grow Food In Space

UW researchers open samples from the International Space Station that have been returned to their lab.

Fresh produce isn’t usually on the menu for astronauts in space, but some University of Wisconsin-Madison botanists are working with NASA to get astronauts gardening.

UW botanist Simon Gilroy, who leads the research, said there is whole range of obstacles to growing plants in space.

Take watering, for instance.

“Water moves down through the soil on Earth because of gravity. So, we remove gravity and then what happens to the water? Well, water just kind of sticks to everything,” he said.

Along with the challenges of properly watering plants, Gilroy said the lack of gravity causes plants to grow tall and spindly. Gilroy’s lab has been working  with NASA to better understand how plant genetics are affected by the space environment. They have set up test experiments at the Kennedy Space Center set to go outer space in coming year. The goal is to identify ideal conditions to grow plants large enough to eat.

“We are right at the dawn of space agriculture, and I would like to think in the not-too-distant future we should be able to grow a sufficient number of plants,” he said.

So far, researchers have succeeded in growing full heads of lettuce in space. Gilroy said beyond providing a way for astronauts to be more self-sufficient when it comes to their food, gardening would serve as a form of therapy.

“Having plants around is a deep psychological tie to where you came from,” he said. “Being able to grow them for food is one big goal, but it also may be that that’s part of what it is to be human, and we should have them up there because on a psychological level, having green stuff around you is a good thing.”

For now, astronauts will continue to mostly eat packaged foods they bring into space from Earth.