Dow High Space Farmers present research in Washington DC

On Aug. 29, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will launch an uncrewed spacecraft, named the Orion Spacecraft, to the moon.

This launch signifies the revisit of the moon since 1972 and is the first step of NASA’s Artemis program whose goal is to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon. The success of Artemis will bring more scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers.

In preparing astronauts to grow some of their own food during human space exploration, NASA researchers have conducted plant experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) for decades. Having fresh vegetables in orbit has become more promising ever since the first vegetable, Red Romaine Lettuce, was consumed on board the ISS in August 2018. In the same month, a group of Midland Public School (MPS) students were inspired to learn space botany .

Two years later, they established two space farming clubs in the MPS District and contributed to the effort of selecting optimal space plants to grow in orbit and long-term space missions through their original space botany research.

On July 27, four Dow High Space Farmers Club representatives, Margaret E. Hitt, Jessica Chai, Nimai Patel, and Aaron Li, presented their latest space botany research and STEM projects at the Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, DC , titled, “Harvesting STEM Seeds through Multiple Utilization of the Growing Beyond Earth Program.” The conference brought international astronauts, engineers, researchers, scientists, and STEM educators together to review ISS research results in the past decade and to discuss the future of research in space and commercial endeavors.

Their research is supported by the Growing Beyond Earth (GBE) program: a NASA STEM Education initiative managed by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida. GBE program provides students in grades 6-12 nationwide with simulated NASA growth chambers and workshops to do space botany research in their schools. Four vegetables have been studied on the ISS because of recommendations made by GBE participants, including Dragoon Lettuce, Extra Dwarf Pok Choy, Chilli Pepper, and Cherry Belle Radish plants.

The Dow High Space Farmers experimented with six different LED light treatments on growing radish plants in an ISS-simulated growing environment. They found that the quantity of light significantly impacted the plant biomass production whereas the quality of light determined the size of and nutrient values ​​of the radish plants. They also discovered that the most energy-efficient treatment was, coincidentally, also the one that rendered the optimal space nutrients– high concentrations of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and low concentrations of iron.

“It was a surprise to me that low iron makes a better (space) plant. I was always told to increase your iron level and we grow plants for that” commented Phillippia Simmons, NASA Payload Operations Director.

“Yeah, that surprised us too– I wouldn’t have contemplated light spectra having effects on plant nutrient content until conducting our GBE experiments. While iron is important for hemoglobin content in blood, too much of it in microgravity would accelerate astronauts bone (mass) loss” explained Margaret Hitt in the Question-and-Answer portion of the presentation.

With their multi-year GBE participation, the Dow High Space Farmers helped test the viability of multiple crops and provided data to NASA life scientists. Learning about how plants responded to similar growing conditions on the ISS also positively influenced how the presenters took on their STEM learning journeys.

Hitt elaborated on how she developed a mathematical model to portray the patterns of light intensities in a simulated NASA growth chamber. This model was tested, and the average percent error was less than 5%; which, in turn, helped her team effectively determine target light combinations for their radish experiments. From this journey, she learned to never be afraid to make mistakes.

“Everything is a learning opportunity,” stressed Margaret.

Chai discussed the impact the GBE experience had on her experiment testing the efficacy of hand sanitizer, in which six different concentrations of ethanol and isopropanol were tested against the development of E. Coli bacteria. The experiment would not have been possible, let alone successful, without the influence of GBE practices such as “Always make sure to make detailed observations!”

Patel and Li emphasized the importance of testing one variable at a time. They shared their experience in writing a chemistry lab procedure for separating sand, salt, and iron from a mixture.

Based on the property of each substance, “we tested one property at a time just like we’d do in GBE (experiments): we started with magnetism, then filtration, and finally distillation” Nimai explained.

During the Q&A session, encouraging words and laughter filled the room. There was no pause in asking questions from the audience; some stayed afterward for follow-up questions and to exchange business cards.

“Plants are what allow us, humans, to be explorers,” says Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul, horticultural sciences professor at the University of Florida and the 2022 ISS Award Recipient for Compelling Results in Plant Science, in her recent interview with the ISS Program Science Forum.

The Dow High Space Farmers began their exploration of the possibility of growing plants on Mars four summers ago, dove into the unknown (how space affects plant growth), and harvested STEM “seeds” at the conference.

To learn more about the Dow High Space Farmers, visit their website: dowhighspacefarmers.org

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