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Spuds in space

Mission control

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 Oct. 20 through Nov. 5 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," he explained. "It was the culmination of a lot of effort." (large image)

Bula, director of the 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 UW-Madison 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.

The potato plants' growth chamber, labeled AstrocultureTM, had been fine tuned on four previous shuttle flights. It has two small 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 unique feature of AstrocultureTM is its watering system, which delivers water and nutrients to plants by negative pressure through porous, stainless steel tubes.

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 through transpiration; and, last but not least, give a psychological lift to astronauts in an otherwise mechanically sterile environment."