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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Space Survival

Air Date: Week of

Professor Gene Giacomelli shows off the fruits of his labor from inside the tubule: tomatoes. (Photo: Dennis Lambert)

In the sunny state of Arizona two men have designed a no-heat light bulb to allow astronauts to grow their own fresh produce in space. Sounds unlikely, but it's the same team that brought vegetables to ice-bound researchers in Antarctica. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Tony Ganzer reports.


YOUNG: The Mars rover Spirit recently reached a spot scientists hope will give clues into the planet’s past, including whether water laid down it’s layers of rock. Some at NASA hope a human mission to Mars will follow the rover’s success. And a few scientists are already planning for ways to feed those explorers.

Tony Ganzer of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports on breakthroughs that could provide fresh greens on the red planet.


GANZER: The movie “Mission to Mars” was not a box office-breaker when it was released in 2000. But some of the film’s concepts really jived with the interests of University of Arizona professor Gene Giacomelli.

In the movie, a team of scientists creates a greenhouse that provides everything you would need to survive in space. Plants provide oxygen, reuse carbon dioxide, reuse wastewater, and offer fresh foods for a weary space team.

Giacomelli’s hopes are to build a self-sustaining greenhouse…on Mars.

GIACOMELLI: The thing about that movie is that it may have awoken a lot of people about the potential of what could be done. But the concept of recycling has been around for a long time, of course.

Professor Gene Giacomelli shows off the fruits of his labor from inside the tubule: tomatoes. (Photo: Dennis Lambert)

GANZER: Giacomelli specializes in a science called hydroponics. Hydroponics utilizes a system of plastic tubing to inject water right to a plant’s root structure, and then allows unused water to be recycled. Giacomelli uses hydroponics and high-intensity light to create a closed and controlled environment inside a massive white greenhouse-tent, locked away inside a barn.


GANZER: The greenhouse looks like it should be on Mars. The tent’s white outer fabric glows with ultra-bright light. Tomato and potato plants hang from the ceiling, held in place by a piece of string. But there is no soil here. This is another benefit of the hydroponic science. Because the plastic tubing system gives the plants exactly what they need, soil isn’t needed. Instead, Giacomelli uses two alternatives. For tomato plants he uses a neutral substance to simply hold the roots in place. This substance could be either the outer substance of a coconut shell, or anything else inert. For potatoes, he uses a small pouch that the potatoes will grow right into.

GIACOMELLI: The plants know what to do. You give them a sufficient amount of light energy and they take it away. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s trivial. What you’re seeing here with these artificial lights is a very unique one, and this is a design of Phil Sadler, which uses a water jacket with cooling water that surrounds the bulb.

GANZER: The water-encased light bulb was a breakthrough for the Sadler-Giacomelli team. It allowed thousands of watts to rest only inches from the tops of plants, without scorching the fragile foliage. The bulbs look almost like a fluorescent light. They are visually brilliant and encased by plastic, and have allowed the greenhouse to remain relatively small, self-contained and portable.

Phil Sadler is an Arizona machinist who builds all the parts for the artificial greenhouses. His work pioneered the efforts to bring fresh produce to Antarctic communities.

SADLER: After I graduated from college, I went to Antarctica and worked as a heavy equipment operator there. And the winter-over people were complaining, they’re isolated, there’s no planes in or out for half the year, they started complaining about “no freshies,” so I organized a volunteer crew and built a greenhouse at McMurto, and later another one at South Pole station.

GANZER: Sadler and Giacomelli teamed up and won the bid to build a new station at the South Pole. But it didn’t take long for thoughts to drift to NASA…and to
Mars. Professor Giacomelli says his system would allow space travelers to grow their own food, instead of having to bring it along on a voyage, making them much more self-sufficient.

GIACOMELLI: NASA has the interest to get off the Earth and produce food for people, and that’s what we’re trying to do, both on the Earth and off the Earth, using controlled environments and using hydroponics. So, they know who we are, we talk to them as much as we can, we make friends.

GANZER: NASA tapped Giacomelli and Sadler earlier this month to create the system for Mars growing. So far they’ve received $30,000 for production of the water-encased light bulb, and have signed a multi-year contract for further research. So it’s looking up from here…

GANZER: For Living on Earth, I’m Tony Ganzer.



The Controlled Environment Agricultural Center

NASA’s Mars Greenhouse


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