Read on for the story of Dr Gioia Massa, a biologist who loves plants and dreamed of growing them in space. All words in bold can be found in the glossary at the end of the story. Questions and resources can also be found after the glossary. Happy reading!
This is Dr Gioia Massa. She’s a biologist from the USA.
Gioia is a special type of biologist, called a botanist. This means that she studies plants.
All her life, Gioia has been fascinated by plants and how they grow and survive. Now, she works with a special team at NASA – the branch of the American government that deals with adventures into space!
But what does plant science have to do with going into space? Surely NASA needs scientists who know about physics and space – not someone whose biggest love is small, green, leafy plants from planet Earth?
The truth is, that NASA does need physicists and astronomers, but they also need experts in lots of other things. NASA not only leads space missions, but also conducts research into how people might be able to live in space in the future. There’s a lot more to living in space than the maths and physics – including how and what people can eat and drink!
This is where Gioia and her love of plants come in. She’s interested in how we can grow plants in space.
On Earth, we have the perfect conditions for plant life. Plants need water, gravity, food, carbon dioxide gas from the air, and just the right amount of light from the sun, to grow successfully. Luckily for us, these are all things that Earth has in abundance!
The rest of the universe is very different. When people go into space, they experience a whole new set of conditions.
The force of gravity isn’t as strong as it is on Earth, so things can float away. In a spaceship, everything has to be tied down – including the astronauts!
Water doesn’t flow when there’s less gravity; it falls in large droplets that astronauts have to catch and break up if they want to shower or wash. There’s no soil, so plants don’t have anything to grow in, and the walls of the spaceship block out the sunlight. This all makes it incredibly difficult to grow plants.
When astronauts go on expeditions to space, their rockets must contain enough food to sustain them for the whole trip. This food has to give them all the nutrients that they need in as small a package as possible, because rockets aren’t big!
So far, no one has spent more than two years in space, and most astronauts who are in space for a long time stay at the International Space Station for about six months. That’s still a long time to go without any fresh food!
The International Space Station can hold up to eight people at a time, and at the moment, astronauts need to bring enough food with them to ensure that they can survive the time that they want to stay for. Extra food is sent up when it’s needed, but these food delivery missions are expensive and cannot happen often.
Access to food is one of the reasons why scientists can’t send people on exploratory missions very often. The amount of time that astronauts can spend in space is limited by the amount of food they have – if they don’t get back before the food runs out, there’s no way of getting more!
If food is left for long enough, the nutrients it contains can also start to degrade. Packaged food loses its quality and flavour over time – meaning it may be inedible by the time it’s used.
Gioia was determined to change this. She knew that if astronauts were able to grow food, they would be able to stay in space for longer, eat a more varied diet, and be happier for having a little piece of Earth with them in the vast expanse of outer space.
After Gioia became a Doctor of Plant Biology, she became a project scientist on a special NASA team with one particular goal: growing plants in space, for astronauts to eat. Perfect!
The team already knew a few things about growing plants in space. Scientists have been sending plants up on spaceships for more than fifty years, and Gioia was able to use their findings to inform her own research.
She knew that a good space plant needs to be compact, because there’s not a lot of room inside a spaceship. It also needs to produce lots of edible food that is safe for astronauts to eat. Finally, it must not require too much care, because astronauts have lots of other things to work on.
Lots of food plants, from lettuce to tomatoes, fit these ‘good space plant’ criteria. Gioia just needed to figure out how to get them to grow under the difficult and strange conditions of outer space.
Luckily, she wasn’t the only one trying to figure this out. For many years, Gioia’s friend Bob Morrow and his team had been working hard on designing a kind of sci-fi greenhouse. They called it ‘The Vegetable Production System’, or more fondly, ‘Veggie’ – a system that allows plants to survive space and grow as if they were on Earth.
Veggie is a space garden big enough to hold up to six plants. It’s about the size of a small suitcase and looks nothing like any garden you’ve ever seen!
Instead of soil, Veggie contains special “pillows”. Each pillow is made of Kevlar, a super strong and resilient material, and contains clay and fertiliser, which the plants grow in. 2-3 seeds are attached to each pillow, because some of them won’t successfully grow into adult plants.
Each plant seed is attached to its pillow using guar gum, a kind of glue that is made from guar beans. The seeds have to be glued in so that they don’t float away under the zero gravity conditions. This natural glue doesn’t harm them or prevent their growth.
The pillows help distribute water, nutrients, and air around the roots, making sure that they don’t get water-logged. Water comes straight from a special water bag, which feeds the water into the pillow and eventually to the plant roots.
Meanwhile, a fan system draws in some of the air from inside the spaceship, to provide the plant with important gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide. Carefully positioned LED lights shine over the plants, mimicking the light of the sun to allow photosynthesis.
Bob and his team had been refining Veggie for over a decade, but so far, no one had used it to grow plants that astronauts could safely eat or use. That’s where Gioia and her team came in.
The first successful plant to grow and be harvested in space was a red romaine lettuce called ‘Outredgeous’, grown in 2015. Since then, astronauts have grown eight different types of leafy greens in Veggie, including lettuces, mustard, and cabbage. Other plants have been grown too – in 2016, the crew of the International Space Station celebrated Valentine’s Day with a bouquet of Zinnia flowers.
Gioia was so proud of her team and all that they had achieved in creating Veggie! She had used her years of training as a botanist to create something incredible, making a real difference to the lives of astronauts on the International Space Station.
However, before they could celebrate, Gioia and her team had to be sure that the food grown in Veggie was safe to eat. It’s hard to wash vegetables in space, because you can’t get water from the tap like you would at home – it would float away!
Astronauts have to wipe their veggies instead, with specially created cleaning wipes. This isn’t as effective as washing, so to make sure no-one would get sick, Gioia wanted to ensure harmful bacteria and fungi didn’t grow on the plants in the first place.
Leaves from plants grown in Veggie are often frozen or chemically preserved, and then sent back down to Earth so that Gioia’s team can run tests on them. By comparing leaves from the plants grown in space, with leaves from plants grown on Earth, she can see whether the leaves are carrying high levels of microorganisms, which could harm the astronauts if they ate them.
By the third year, the mean number of microorganisms found on Veggie leaves was relatively low compared to what is usually found on farmed plants here on Earth. The Outredgeous space lettuce was now absolutely safe for astronauts to eat. Gioia was so pleased!
Now that Gioia knows that edible plants can be grown safely in space, she can start working on developing different kinds of plants that can be grown by astronauts on their space travels. Next up – tomatoes!
Perhaps one day, learning how to grow plants in space will mean that people might never have to return to Earth. We might start colonies on nearby planets like Mars and, with the designs and discoveries of teams like Gioia’s, be able to sustain ourselves without any help from Earth! Until then, growing plants is also a great way for astronauts to relax, and gives them an important reminder of Earth to take with them on their space travels, as well as some healthy nutrients.
We can all benefit from growing our own veggies, fruits, or flowers. Perhaps you should try it yourself! If you do, make sure you think about all those key conditions plants need – light, gravity, water, and food – and remember how much more accessible they are here on Earth.
The achievements of Gioia and her team will have wide-reaching consequences for space travel. They may not be astronauts, but they found an out of this world solution to the problem of growing plants in space. Extraordinary!
Thank you for reading!
This story was written as part of a Masters in Science Communication project, investigating whether storytelling is an effective way to teach children about science and scientists. As a result, I would really appreciate some feedback, which you can give by answering a short survey. The survey takes less than 5 minutes to complete, and I will use the results to develop even better science stories in the future. To help, just click on the button below.
Gioia’s research paper: Khodadad, C., Hummerick, M., Spencer, S., Dixit, A., Richards, J, Romeyn, M., Smith, T., Wheeler, R., Massa, G. (2020). Microbiological and nutritional analysis of lettuce crops grown on the International Space Station. Frontiers in Plant Science. 11: 199.
*The graphs used in this story were adapted from Figure 2 in this paper!
More information about plants in space:
More information about the ISS:
More information about life in space:
Video: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life in Space <- an amazing playlist of videos from Space!
More information about how plants grow:
The research was produced not just by Dr Gioia Massa, but also by the other members of her research team: Christina Khodadad; Mary Hummerick; LaShelle Spencer; Anirudha Dixit; Jeffery Richards; Matthew Romeyn; Trent Smith, and Raymond Wheeler. They too deserve credit for this discovery – good science is often best done as a team.
This story would not be nearly so good without its illustrations by the wonderful Daisy Harrison, the advice and support of Dr. Nicola Hemmings, and the pointers of Dr Gioia Massa herself. Thank you!