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Home : Volume 22 : Winter 1995-96 :
UW/COE team grows first food in space

Never before was a man so happy to see potatoes.

"It was a feeling of elation," recalled Raymond J. Bula of learning that five Norland variety potato leaves, which spent 16 days circling Earth aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, had indeed sprouted tubers in the microgravity environment of space. "This was the first food ever grown in orbit. It was the culmination of a lot of effort."

Bula, director of the college's Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, was the principal investigator for this high-profile test which attracted media attention from around the world. He worked closely with a team led by horticulture professor Theodore Tibbitts. The experiment's success opens the door for larger horticulture projects to be conducted on the International Space Station, set for construction later this decade.

Throughout the mission, WCSAR personnel were able to monitor their potato payload from a remote station near the lobby of Engineering Hall. From that site they could talk to NASA's mission control specialists who were in direct contact with the shuttle crew. Every couple of days they received time-delayed videos from a camera built into the plants' growth chamber. Photo printouts of these videos allowed them to closely track the condition of the plants while in space.

The growth chamber, AstrocultureTM, had been fine tuned on four previous shuttle flights. It has two plant-holding compartments, each about the size of a half-gallon carton of milk. Surrounding the compartments are a myriad of environmental controls, including light-emitting diodes developed in conjunction with Quantum Devices, Inc., of Barneveld, Wis. The LEDs provide the light used in photosynthesis.

Another feature of AstrocultureTM is its unique watering system, which delivers water and nutrients to plants by negative pressure through porous, stainless steel tubes.
Mission control

Monitoring the potatoes' progress from a site in Engineering Hall (from left): student Mike Heidenreich, WCSAR director Raymond J. Bula, instumentation innovator Robert Yetka and associate scientist Norman A. Draeger. (32K JPG)

On the twelfth day of the mission, researchers became concerned when pictures from AstrocultureTM showed the potato leaves turning brown. This aging process was expected, said Bula, but not quite so soon. However, once the flight was over and the new tubers were uncovered for the first time, all concern vanished.

To preserve the pioneering vegetables after the mission, some portions were frozen with liquid nitrogen for chemical analysis by NASA scientists. Other samples were returned for microscopic analysis by UW-Madison researchers.

The benefits of having plants in space go well beyond providing a food source, said Bula. "Plants provide a naturally recycling life support system in space. They help remove excess carbon dioxide; replenish oxygen; purify water; and give a psychological lift to astronauts in an otherwise mechanically sterile environment."

Because tubers can be grown from a leaf in two weeks, they were ideal for the shuttle experiment. A secondary benefit is that "potatoes are something that the ordinary person can relate to," said Bula, who has memories of pulling potatoes from the ground while growing up on the family farm in Antigo, Wis. "This universal appeal helped attract a lot of worldwide interest to our experiment."

While Bula and his fellow researchers are thrilled that the potatoes grew and that their equipment worked flawlessly, they know they cannot let up on their efforts. Over the next three years, WCSAR will concentrate on building a "scaled-up" version of AstrocultureTM for the International Space Station. The center will also start working with industry on related microgravity projects.

Attracting private businesses to this field "will take an education process," said Bula. "We have three years to bring them around."

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