How to Make a Meal on the Moon

Some plants will grow just about anywhere.

January 1, 2015

GleaningsIssue 10: January/February 2015

Erica Hernandez, a University of Arizona junior majoring in plant sciences and minoring in computer science, is studying how humans might one day grow plants on the moon.

The Prototype Lunar Greenhouse (LGH) program appealed to Hernandez immediately when she applied for a NASA Space Grant Undergraduate Research Internship with Gene Giacomelli, an engineer in the UA’s Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The LGH is a life-size model created and built by Phil Sadler of the Tempe-based Sadler Machine Co.

Funded by the AZ-NASA Ralph Steckler Space Grant Colonization Research and Technology Development program and housed at the UA Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, the LGH has demonstrated ways of using plants to revitalize air, recycle water and waste, and provide a continuous source of vegetables for the inhabitants of potential future space colonization efforts.

At the LGH, Hernandez has found her passion.

Along with fellow undergraduate Connor Osgood, Hernandez monitors seedlings, maintains the hydroponic systems used to grow the plants, and rotates new seedlings to ensure a continuous crop.

“I also do data collection on various sensors making sure the environment is appropriate for plant growth,” she said. “We’re trying to collect as much data as we can out of this system so that we can determine any relationships between the environment and plant growth.”

A plethora of sensors, including live web cameras recording 24/7, monitor environmental conditions inside the sealed chambers.

All kinds of plants are fit for the moon, Hernandez said, as long as they can be grown using hydroponics. “We were given a list of plants by NASA. We’ve grown basil, sweet potato, strawberry, cowpeas, and a whole bunch of lettuce. Everything is edible, but we actually don’t eat anything because we’re doing analyses of plant biomass.”

This winter, Hernandez is helping to set up the LGH’s new Outreach and Teaching Module housed at the UA’s Biosphere 2. “It will provide a place where people can learn about how plants can potentially be used for food in future space missions,” she said. “We might even harvest and allow people to eat the crops from that module.”

Hernandez’s experience at the LGH has provided focus for her own future. “If I were able to choose my future, I would hope that I would be able to continue doing research at the Lunar Greenhouse,” she said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, areas where we could learn new things about how plants grow using hydroponics. A greenhouse is a really complicated system, and solving problems is exciting.”

“And of course, we’re hopefully directly contributing to helping people go to space,” she added.

The LGH is open to the public, although visitors must be accompanied by a tour guide—usually Hernandez.

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