Here’s how agricultural research in Antarctica is helping scientists grow food in space
Understanding how to feed people in space is an important part of a larger effort to demonstrate the viability of long-term human habitation in extraterrestrial environments. On May 12, 2022, a team of scientists announced that they had successfully grown plants using lunar soil collected during the Apollo lunar missions. But this isn’t the first time scientists have tried to grow plants in soils that don’t typically support life.
I am a historian of Antarctic science. How to grow plants and food in the far south of the Earth has been an active area of research for over 120 years. These efforts led to a better understanding of the many challenges of farming in extreme environments and ultimately led to limited but successful plant cultivation in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to explicitly see this research as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.
Growing plants in Antarctica
Early efforts to grow plants in Antarctica focused primarily on nutrition for explorers.
In 1902, British physician and botanist Reginald Koettlitz was the first person to grow food in Antarctic soils. He collected soil from McMurdo Sound and used it to grow mustard and watercress in boxes under a skylight aboard the expedition’s ship. The harvest was immediately beneficial to the expedition. Koettlitz produced enough that, during a scurvy outbreak, the entire crew ate the greens to help ward off their symptoms. This early experience demonstrated that Antarctic soil could be productive and also underscored the nutritional benefits of fresh food on polar expeditions.
Early attempts to grow plants directly in Antarctic landscapes were less successful. In 1904, Scottish botanist Robert Rudmose-Brown mailed seeds of 22 cold-tolerant arctic plants to the frigid little island of Laurie to see if they would grow. Not all of the seeds germinated, which Rudmose-Brown attributed to both environmental conditions and the lack of a biologist to help with their growth.
There were many other attempts to introduce non-native plants to the Antarctic landscape, but in general they did not survive for long. While the soil itself could support some plant life, the harsh environment was not conducive to growing plants.
Modern techniques and emotional benefits
By the 1940s, many countries had begun to set up long-term research stations in Antarctica. Since it was impossible to grow plants outdoors, some people living in these stations decided to build greenhouses to provide both food and emotional well-being. But they soon realized that the Antarctic soil was too poor for most crops other than mustard and watercress, and usually lost its fertility after a year or two. Starting in the 1960s, people started switching to soilless hydroponics, a system in which you grow plants with their roots submerged in chemically enhanced water under a combination of artificial and natural light.
By using hydroponic techniques in greenhouses, crop production facilities were not using the Antarctic environment at all to grow crops. Instead, people were creating artificial conditions.
In 2015, there were at least 43 different facilities in Antarctica where researchers had grown plants at one time or another. Although these facilities were useful for scientific experiments, many Antarctic residents appreciated being able to eat fresh vegetables in the winter and found these facilities to be of enormous benefit to their psychological well-being. As one researcher put it, they are “warm, bright and full of green life – an environment that is lacking in the Antarctic winter”.
Antarctica as an analogue of space
As the permanent human occupation of Antarctica grew in the mid-20th century, humanity also began its push into space – and more specifically to the Moon. Beginning in the 1960s, scientists working for organizations like NASA began to view hostile, extreme, extraterrestrial Antarctica as a convenient analogue for space exploration, where nations could test space technologies and protocols, including including crop production. This interest continued until the end of the 20th century, but it was not until the 2000s that space became the main focus of some agricultural research in Antarctica.
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 way to maximize plant growth while minimizing resource use. According to its architects, the facility closely mimicked the conditions of a moon base and provided “an Earth analogue for some of the problems that will arise when food production is moved to space habitations.” This facility continues to provide the South Pole station with additional food.
Since the construction of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the University of Arizona has worked with NASA to build a similar lunar greenhouse prototype.
Growing plants in space
As people began to spend more time in space towards the end of the 20th century, astronauts began to put the lessons of a century of growing plants in Antarctica to good use.
In 2014, NASA astronauts installed the Plant Production System aboard the International Space Station to study plant growth in microgravity. The following year they harvested a small crop of lettuce, part of which they then ate with balsamic vinegar. Just as Antarctic scientists have argued for many years, NASA has asserted that the nutritional and psychological value of fresh produce is “a solution to the challenge of long-duration deep space missions.”
Antarctic research plays an important role in space to this day. In 2018, Germany launched a project in Antarctica called EDEN ISS which focused on plant cultivation technologies and their applications in space in a semi-closed system. Plants grow in the air as misters spray chemically enhanced water on their roots. In the first year, EDEN ISS was able to produce enough fresh vegetables to provide a third of the diet for a crew of six.
Just as in the history of Antarctica, the question of how to grow plants is at the heart of any discussion of possible human settlements on the Moon or Mars. People eventually abandoned efforts to cultivate the harsh Antarctic landscape for food production and turned to artificial technologies and environments to do so. But after more than a century of practice and use of the most modern techniques, food grown in Antarctica has never been able to support many people for very long. Before sending people to the Moon or Mars, it might be wise to first prove that a colony can survive on its own amid the frozen southern plains of the Earth.
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