If astronauts get to enjoy a salad of bush tomatoes and Warrigal greens on the International Space Station, it’ll be thanks to the efforts of Victorian school students.
This week budding citizen scientists from Catholic Regional College, Caroline Springs and Mount Lilydale Mercy College visited the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria to collect specially designed Growth Chambers (which replicate growing conditions in space) and to learn about plant data collection and Australian Bush Foods.
The students are the first in Australia to participate in Growing Beyond Earth, a program where schools help NASA discover nutritious and tasty foods for astronauts to grow and eat on the ISS.
It’s the ultimate STEM project (pun intended), bringing together botany and space science, and in the case of the Australian pilot, Indigenous knowledge. Oh, and the results are edible.
Professor Tim Entwisle, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria spoke to Cosmos on the phone while standing among the Lemon Myrtle, wattle and Davidson Plum of the bush foods garden at Cranbourne.
But he says those shrubby plants are unlikely to be suitable for space. While delicious, they’d take too long to grow. “By the time you had wattle seed, you’d be back on Earth.”
Other Australian Bush Foods, like Warrigal greens and bush tomatoes, are much quicker and easier to grow, and could be among the species picked for the program.
Fresh food helps astronauts improve nutrition and – because astronauts can experience food fatigue – it helps their overall health and wellbeing. Australian Bush Foods potentially offer unique Australian flavour and benefits for NASA’s astronauts, as some have high nutritional content and can grow on impoverished soils, with little water.
“They’re looking for plants that are not only interesting and add variety to the diet – a bit of flavour, a bit of crunch, a bit of texture – but also for plants that might offer additional minerals or nutrients that would help them in space,” Entwisle says.
Other potential candidates include Microseris walteri (Murnong), a staple for Aboriginal people for millions of years and eight times more nutritious than a potato. Also, Carpobrotus rossii (Pigface).
The Growing Beyond Earth program has been running for six years in the United States. Originating with Fairchild Botanic Garden in Florida, the unique citizen science project now involves 350 schools across the US, with more than 40,000 students participating and more than 180 varieties of edible plants tested.
US students in the program have successfully identified foods such as “Dragoon Lettuce” and “Extra Dwarf Pak Choi” that have gone on to become a part of the ‘Veggie’ program at Kennedy Space Centre and on the International Space Station.
When the Victorian children collected the Growth Chambers this week, Entwisle says the excitement of space and working with NASA made their eyes light up.
“Plants are cool to us botanists, and those of us in the Botanic Gardens. But space is ultra-cool to kids.”
Zalaika Farrugia, a Year 10 student at Catholic Regional College says, “it’s definitely an amazing opportunity that we get to research plants that could be grown in space and that astronauts will be able to produce these plants up not he moon, and on Mars … “
Initially students will familiarise themselves with the Growth Chambers and test their techniques by growing basil. Before moving on to Bush Foods, Entwisle says.
The chambers are fitted with lights and a fan, and students will collect data around germination rate, plant size, edible mass, humidity, light and other variables.
The students will be testing the tolerance of different plants, Entwisle says.
“They get the plant growing and start to measure growth rates. They can then start to dial up or dial down things like temperature and water.”
Data collected through the program will be shared with NASA via the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
The Australian branch of the program is a collaboration between NASA, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, The Latrobe Institute for Agriculture and Food and Melbourne Archdiocese of Catholic Schools.
Interested schools can subscribe to Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s Learning E-news via their homepage: https://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/ to keep up to date with the program.