The Astronaut Farmer: Growing Moon Food

Planting a Seed: The First Lunar Farm

Neil Armstrong brought his own lunch. Astronauts who live on the moon bases of the future will have to be more inventive.

That is why -- even though the first lunar base is years away -- a small group of entrepreneurs is already at work on what it hopes will be the first miniature greenhouse ever sent to the moon.

The entrepreneurs (government help not refused but not needed, thank you) plan to grow mustard seeds -- ideal because the two weeks they take to bloom is the same length as a lunar day -- and if they thrive, well, please forgive the pun, but the sky is the limit.

"We've never grown a plant beyond low earth orbit," said Taber MacCallum, the founder, with his wife, Jane Poynter, of an Arizona firm called Paragon Space Development Corp. "We don't know how it will react to one-sixth gravity, or to cosmic rays."

'Lunar Oasis'

Paragon has now joined with another firm, Odyssey Moon Ltd., which hopes to be the first private enterprise to land a robotic probe on the lunar surface. Odyssey Moon is trying to get together the funding and technology to make a landing by the end of 2012. If the mission succeeds, one of its payloads will be Paragon's toaster-size chamber, nicknamed for now the Lunar Oasis.

"It's essentially a backward space suit for a plant," said MacCallum. The prototype, shown off by Paragon, is a clear cylinder in a tapered metal frame, about a foot tall. It will have to supply the plant inside with just the right amount of carbon dioxide to live, and siphon out the oxygen the plant creates -- just the opposite of what human space travelers need. The plants could grow in soil, but a gelatin-like mix full of nutrients, known as agar to biologists, is probably more practical.

"I'd be surprised if we couldn't make it work," he said. "Life is pretty robust in that way."

Students of such things may vaguely recall the names of MacCallum and Poynter. They were part of the eight-member team that spent two years living in Biosphere 2, the giant closed glass habitat built in the Arizona desert 20 years ago to replicate the complex web of life on earth (Biosphere 1).

Planting a Seed: The First Lunar Farm

They lived to tell the tale, but it wasn't easy. The air in the habitat grew thick with carbon dioxide, the place was overrun by ants, and many scientists derided the whole thing as a new-age stunt.

Bob Richards, the CEO of Odyssey Moon, says the new effort will be anything but a stunt. If they pull off the lunar landing by the end of 2012 -- and if no other firm beats them to it -- they win $30 million offered by Google, known as the Lunar X prize. But Richards says the prize would not cover his expenses, and besides, his firm has larger plans.

'FedEx to the Moon'

"We're really hoping to be a FedEx to the moon," he said. Odyssey Moon wants to carry experiments or other payloads for NASA, other government agencies, or private enterprise, at low cost and at a profit. "We are on the precipice of becoming a multiplanet species," said Richards.

To that end, the little lunar greenhouse could be an important ingredient. "Life is so pervasive, so resilient, we wonder how resilient it really is," Richards said.

Plants have flown in experiments on the International Space Station, on Russian orbiting stations and on the space shuttle, but nobody is sure how they would handle lunar gravity or cosmic rays that are not filtered out by Earth's atmosphere.

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