Over 100 years of Antarctic agriculture helps scientists grow food in space

Understanding how to feed people in space is an important part of a larger effort to demonstrate the viability of long-term human habitation in extraterrestrial environments. On May 12, 2022, a team of scientists announced that they had successfully grown plants using lunar soil collected during the Apollo lunar missions. But this isn’t the first time scientists have tried to grow plants in soils that don’t typically support life.

I am a Antarctic science historian. How to grow plants and food in the far south of the Earth has been an active area of ​​research for over 120 years. These efforts helped to better understand the many challenges of farming in extreme environments and ultimately led to limited, but successful, plant cultivation in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to explicitly see this research as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.

This painting shows a room aboard the Antarctic research vessel Discovery, where the first plants were grown from Antarctic soil.
Hulton/Stringer Archive via Getty Images

Growing plants in Antarctica

Early efforts to grow plants in Antarctica focused primarily on nutrition for explorers.

In 1902, British physician and botanist Reginald Koettlitz was the first person to grow food in Antarctic soils. He collected soil from McMurdo Sound and used it to grow mustard and watercress in boxes under a skylight aboard the expedition’s ship. The harvest was immediately beneficial to the expedition. Koettlitz produced enough of it that, during an epidemic of scurvy, the the whole crew ate the greens to help ward off their symptoms. This early experience demonstrated that Antarctic soil could be productive and also underscored the nutritional benefits of fresh food during polar expeditions.

Early attempts to grow plants directly in Antarctic landscapes were less successful. In 1904, Scottish botanist Robert Rudmose-Brown mailed seeds of 22 cold-tolerant arctic plants to the frigid little island of Laurie to see if they would grow. Not all seeds germinated, which Rudmose-Brown attributed to both the the environmental conditions and the absence of a biologist to support their growth.

There have been many other attempts to introduce non-native plants to the Antarctic landscape, but generally they did not survive long. While the soil itself could support some plant life, the harsh environment was not conducive to growing plants.

The interior of a greenhouse with plants growing next to heat-retaining reflective walls.

The only way to successfully grow food in the cold Antarctic environment is inside a greenhouse, like this one at McMurdo Station.
Eli Duke/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Modern techniques and emotional benefits

By the 1940s, many countries had begun to set up long-term research stations in Antarctica. Since it was impossible to grow plants outdoors, some people living in these stations took it upon themselves to build greenhouses providing both nourishment and emotional well-being. But they soon realized that the soil in Antarctica was too poor for most crops. beyond mustard and watercressand that usually lost fertility after a year or two. Starting in the 1960s, people started switching to soilless hydroponics, a system in which you grow plants with their roots submerged in chemically enhanced water under a combination of artificial and natural light.

A row of small seedlings growing in shelves without soil.

Hydroponic systems grow plants without the need for soil.
Eli Duke/Flickr, CC BY-SA

By using hydroponic techniques in greenhouses, crop production facilities were not using the Antarctic environment at all to grow crops. Instead, people were creating artificial conditions.

In 2015, there were at least 43 different facilities in Antarctica where researchers had grown plants at one time or another. Although these facilities were useful for scientific experiments, many Antarctic residents appreciated being able to eat fresh vegetables in the winter and saw these facilities as huge benefits to their lives. psychological well-being. As one researcher put it, they are “warm, bright and full of green life – an environment that is missing during the Antarctic winter.”

A large silver building on a snowy landscape.

At the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, researchers have been conducting experiments since 2004 designed to mimic growth conditions in space.
Daniel Leussler/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Antarctica as an analogue of space

As the permanent human occupation of Antarctica grew in the mid-20th century, humanity also began its push into space – and more specifically to the Moon. Beginning in the 1960s, scientists working for organizations such as NASA began thinking about hostileextreme and extraterrestrial Antarctica like a convenient analog for space exploration, where nations could test space technologies and protocols, including crop production. This interest continued until the end of the 20th century, but it was not until the 2000s that space became the main focus of some agricultural research in Antarctica.

In 2004, the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center collaborated to build the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. The project was designed to test the idea of ​​controlled-environment agriculture – a way to maximize plant growth while minimizing resource use. According to its architects, the facility closely mimicked the conditions of a lunar base and offered “an analogue on Earth for some of the problems that will arise when food production is moved to space dwellings. This facility continues to provide the South Pole station with additional food.

Since the construction of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the University of Arizona has collaborated with NASA to build a similar chamber Lunar greenhouse prototype.

An overhead photo of some plants growing on small black plastic pillows.

The International Space Station houses a small vegetable garden that provides small amounts of food for the crew.

Growing plants in space

As people began to spend more time in space towards the end of the 20th century, astronauts began to put the lessons of a century of growing plants in Antarctica to good use.

In 2014, NASA astronauts installed the Plant Production System aboard the International Space Station to study plant growth in microgravity. The following year they harvested a small crop of lettuce, part of which they then ate with balsamic vinegar. Just as Antarctic scientists have argued for many years, NASA has asserted that the nutritional and psychological value of fresh produce is “a solution to the challenge of long duration missions in deep space.”

A white building above a frozen landscape.

EDEN ISS is the latest experiment designed to mimic a food production facility on the Moon and can successfully feed a crew of six.
German Aerospace Center DLR / Flickr, CC PER

Antarctic research plays an important role for space to this day. In 2018, Germany launched a project in Antarctica called EDEN ISS which focused on plant cultivation technologies and their applications in space in a semi-closed system. Plants grow in the air, as misters spray chemically enhanced water on their roots. The first year, EDEN ISS was able to produce enough fresh vegetables to a third of the diet of a crew of six.

Just as in the history of Antarctica, the question of how to grow plants is at the heart of any discussion of possible human settlements on the Moon or Mars. People eventually abandoned efforts to cultivate the harsh Antarctic landscape for food production and turned to artificial technologies and environments to do so. But after more than a century of practice and use of the most modern techniques, food grown in Antarctica has never been able to support many people for very long. Before sending people to the Moon or Mars, it might be wise to first prove that a colony can survive on its own amid the frozen southern plains of the Earth.

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