Farming in space

It’s a simple act—dig a furrow, drop seeds, cover with soil, add water, fertilizer, sunlight and time and reap the harvest. Thousands of years ago, humanity created civilizations through the act of farming.

But for humanity to return to the moon, and for those brave explorers eventually living and working on Mars, that simple act that has defined civilization is anything but simple. National Aeronautic Space Administration is in the middle of a multi-year research project aboard the International Space Station to study how plants can be grown on future long-duration space missions. 

You might say NASA recruited a specialist when U.S. Air Force Col. Nick Hague, a self-described farm boy from rural Hoxie, Kansas, joined its 21st astronaut class. Hague recently wrapped up 203 days on board the ISS, conducting research into all manners of projects, including the Vegetable Production System, termed VEGGIE.

You can take the farm boy 250 miles above the farm, but you sure can’t take the farm out of him.

Ad astra per aspera

Hague graduated from Hoxie High School in 1994. He left the small rural town, population 1,201, in the northwest corner of the state and earned his bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the United States Air Force Academy in 1998. From there, the newly minted second lieutenant went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by service in the Air Force, and eventually the astronaut corps. 

He was slated for a mission to the ISS in October 2018. He and his crewmate Alexey Ovchinin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos were aboard the Soyuz MS-10, the aircraft that takes international crews to the ISS, on Oct. 11. But shortly after launch, they had to abort the mission because of a rocket booster malfunction. The spacecraft landed safely, and in June 2019 they were back aboard another Soyuz craft on their way to the ISS.

He made it to the stars, even after that initial difficulty, and was able to start his mission as a researcher and a subject.

“The announcement of going back to the moon in five years as part of the Artemis program means there is a lot of work to figure out the systems that will make that mission successful, and more importantly sustainable, so that we can push on to Mars with what we learned on our trip back to the moon,” Hague explained. “On the ISS we are able to live in a microgravity environment, which means everything is falling together, but to you it looks like everything is floating. That takes away the dominating affect of gravity, which drives everything on the ground. It lets us see the world around us and ourselves in a more nuanced detail.” 

NASA is working with the private sector on many experiments of materials like fiber optics and rubber production. These materials will be necessary for space travel, but also have practical use here on Earth to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles and expand high bandwidth communications, Hague said.

Life in zero gravity has a lot of challenges that have to be sorted out for long-term travel and exploration. Chiefly, in order for humans to travel through the stars the typical pre-packaged astronaut food has to be supplemented by fresh foods during flight, according to NASA. So, astronauts like Hague aboard the ISS are conducting experiments to learn how plants respond to microgravity. 

“People have to live and to live we have to eat,” Hague said. “Trying to take all the food that you’re going to need to have for a two- to three-year journey to Mars is prohibitive. Bringing all the water we’re going to need is prohibitive. So we have to get really smart with how we try to close the loop and simulate what Earth does for us on the ground.”

Closing the loop

The research isn’t just about growing crops to consume in space, Hague explained. Plants also serve as air cleaners in enclosed environments, taking in carbon dioxide that humans give off and replacing it with oxygen.

“So, I was working on an experiment to grow algae trying to consume some of the carbon dioxide that the crew gave off and create oxygen,” Hague said. That algae also was part of experiments to see if that could be a nutrient-rich food source for long journeys.

The VEGGIE experiment is just the latest in a long history of experiments. Astrobotany has been a question since the early days of NASA. Scientists have had to start at the very basic questions. Will radiation affect seeds and plant growth? How can a seed know which way to grow roots and which way is the light source in a zero gravity environment? What artificial light sources are best? Even something as simple as figuring out a growth medium that won’t float out of its containment and contaminate sensitive equipment has to undergo practical experimentation.

Back in July 1946, NASA conducted the first astrobotany experiment, using repurposed V-2 rockets to carry corn seeds and fruit flies into space to expose them to cosmic radiation. In 1972, Skylab had an experiment to grow rice in a nutrient agar medium and to learn how lighting affected plants as they grew in microgravity.

Today’s VEGGIE experiment, which Hague and his colleagues conducted during their mission, now is trying to answer the next questions of how best to cultivate crops in space, starting with greens like Extra Dwarf Pak Choi, Amara Mustard and Red Romaine Lettuce. He explained that the plants grow in “pillows” that contain a medium that holds water and provides the seed nutrients. Using syringes and water bags, they can inject water close to the roots, so that the plant knows to grow toward the water and nutrients. At the same time, light spectrum experiments above attract the plant to grow “up” even when there is no “up” in the ISS.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

The VEGGIE Facility on the ISS can grow 12 plants at a time, and after 4 weeks of careful tending the crew can harvest enough lettuce for a salad at a handful of meals.

“Now, that’s not enough (to sustain a crew long term),” Hague said. “But, it’s a start.” It’s just one step in proving the concept.

The ultimate goal is to help future space crews be more autonomous in extreme isolation from support teams on Earth. Hague said there’s an international team of 100,000 people constantly monitoring the ISS from around the globe. They’re able to respond in real time to changes in the ISS system and help the crew of six to seven members respond to emergencies or changes in the environment.

But, the moon is 250,000 miles above the Earth, and at that extreme distance, crews will have to be more autonomous and be able to sustain life on their own without the umbilical cord of teams on the ground.

“As we go farther away, we’re going to uncover those challenges,” Hague said. “We know sustaining life is going to be difficult. It takes a lot of supplies so we’re going to have to be able to reclaim and purify water, to grow crops so that we can sustain our crews. Those are going to be the key breakthroughs that help us get back to the Moon, and onto Mars.”

There’s no place like home

Hague said he knows that the work he and his crewmates do on the ISS has real-world applications to his family and neighbors back here at home—from better understanding of the human body and diseases, to technologies that allow his Hoxie neighbors to be more efficient farmers and irrigators. 

“Today on the space station we’re trying to better understand the Earth,” Hague said. “That’s one of the benefits of space exploration, that the more we explore from home, the more we end up understanding about our home. Right now we’re taking photographs from space of crops on the ground below, trying to evaluate the biomass in the fields. That helps farmers be smarter about what they’re putting on crops and the water required to increase their yields and be more profitable. All of that is also going to help inform us how to cultivate crops on another planet.” He also pointed out that there is a growing space agriculture, or astrobotany, career path for students to consider as they look at their future in agriculture—whether that keeps them here on Earth or somewhere among the stars one day.

From the Air Force Academy, to MIT, to NASA and beyond, Hague said it’s because of his western Kansas roots that he was able to go so far.

“It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to be able to do something like this, to be able to experience what it’s like to live and work in space,” Hague said. “Growing up in rural Kansas, in a small town, afforded me so many opportunities to be able to try so many different things in school.” But it also taught him, he said, that things in life aren’t going to be easy and you work to achieve what you can. Traits that helped him live, work, survive and thrive on the ISS and in the NASA astronaut corps. 

Hague’s mission is far from over, now that he’s back on Earth he and his crewmates continue to undergo testing to see the effects of the mission on their bodies. So while his view has changed from seeing the Earth glide underneath his window, to watching the ISS move through the night sky, Hague said his time on the ISS put life into a uniquely Kansas perspective.

“There’s no place like home,” he said.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected]. Be sure to check out the HPJ Talk episode to hear more from our interview with Col. Nick Hague. Listen as he describes his first space walk, and his phone call with Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt about the movie “Ad Astra” and future space travel.