NASA Testing Method to Grow Bigger Plants in Space


NASA astronaut Christina Koch initiates the Veg-PONDS-02 experiment on the International Space Station within Veggie by filling the upper reservoir on April 25, 2019. Credits: NASA/David Saint-Jacques
NASA astronaut Christina Koch initiates the Veg-PONDS-02 experiment on the International Space Station within Veggie by filling the upper reservoir on April 25, 2019. Credits: NASA/David Saint-Jacques

By Danielle Sempsrott
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

In an effort to increase the ability to provide astronauts nutrients on long-duration missions as the agency plans to sustainably return to the Moon and move forward to Mars, the Veg-PONDS-02 experiment is currently underway aboard the International Space Station.

The present method of growing plants in space uses seed bags, referred to as pillows, that astronauts push water into with a syringe. Using this method makes it difficult to grow certain types of “pick and eat” crops beyond lettuce varieties. Crops like tomatoes use a large amount of water, and pillows don’t have enough holding capacity to support them.

As an alternative to the pillows, 12 passive orbital nutrient delivery system (PONDS) plant growth units are being put through their paces. The PONDS units are less expensive to produce, have more water holding capacity, provide a greater space for root growth and are a completely passive system—meaning PONDS can provide air and water to crops without extra power.

The 21-day experiment is a collaboration between NASA, Techshot, Inc., the Tupperware Brands Corporation, fluids experts at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Mark Weislogel at Portland State University. As a U.S. National Laboratory, the space station provides commercial companies and government agencies with the ability to test the experiment in a microgravity environment.

“There comes a point where you have longer and longer duration missions, and you reach a cost benefit point where it makes sense to grow your own food,” said Howard Levine, chief scientist of NASA’s Utilization and Life Sciences Office at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center.

After Levine developed the PONDS prototype, it was passed on to Dave Reed, Techshot’s Florida operations director, and his team to re-engineer and make it capable of withstanding spaceflight. PONDS tested well on the ground, but when the system first arrived at the space station last year for testing in a microgravity environment, it pumped too much water to the lettuce seeds.

The Veg-PONDS-02 experiment is underway aboard the International Space Station to test an alternative plant growth system.
The Veg-PONDS-02 experiment sits in the International Space Station’s two Veggie chambers. The 21-day experiment consists of 12 plant growth units in three different design configurations available for testing. Credits: NASA/Christina Koch

“We took a step back, evaluated different aspects of the design, and together with water fluid experts from NASA, we came up with three alternative designs, each of which had a number of components we wanted to test in space,” said Levine.

On April 19, 2019, the Veg-PONDS-02 payload arrived at the orbiting laboratory via Northrop Grumman’s 11th Commercial Resupply mission, containing 12 PONDS units in the three new design configurations. Six of the units have a clear design to allow researchers to observe the performance of water in the units during the experiment. All units contain red romaine lettuce seeds and have been placed in the two space station vegetable production systems, known as Veggie, to test growth performance.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch initiated the experiment by filling the upper reservoir on April 25. Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Saint-Jacques filled the PONDS unit lower reservoir on May 2 and documented how water behaved in the system.

Reed and his team worked closely with material scientists and mechanical engineers with Tupperware to design and mold components that make up the PONDS-02 units.

“We needed something that was molded well, molded precisely and molded out of plastics that were compatible with edible material,” said Reed. “They brought all this huge body of knowledge to us.”

This experiment is a way to test the performance of the three alternative design methods in space to see if the water management issue initially discovered during the first PONDS experiment has been adequately addressed.

“I look at this as a normal part of the process,” said David Brady, assistant program scientist in the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “You find what works and what doesn’t work, and you adapt and change it. The fact that Howard and his team have been able to do that is progress.”

On May 16, the final day of the experiment, the plants will be harvested. Six of the PONDS units will be returned to Earth on SpaceX’s 17th Commercial Resupply Services mission for further analysis. Reed’s team will take the successful components and combine them into one final PONDS design, which will pave the way for the agency to truly begin testing the growth capability of crop varieties beyond leafy greens.

“PONDS was an opportunity to do something that no one else has done before,” said Reed. “People have been growing plants in space since the Apollo era, but not like this.”

The Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division (SLPSRA) of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington is sponsoring the Veg-PONDS-02 investigation as part of its mission to conduct research that enables human spaceflight exploration.

Last Updated: May 17, 2019

Editor: Danielle Sempsrott

Tags:  Humans in Space, Intern
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Steve Richards
May 18, 2019 2:22 am

I wonder what CO2 level they will use for the plants?

May 18, 2019 2:47 am

NASA, high CO2 ppm concentration is your friend.

R Shearer
Reply to  Vuk
May 18, 2019 7:13 am

The CO2 concentration in the ISS varies from 3000 to about 7000 ppm. This is not widely publicized as it sort of ruins the meme. Nevertheless, there is some consideration for lowering the average CO2 concentration and doing a better job of controlling its variation.

Kitty Antonik
Reply to  R Shearer
May 18, 2019 4:22 pm

A 2014 Air & Space article specifically addresses the high CO2 levels in ISS:
“Due to the difficulties in “scrubbing” an artificial atmosphere, carbon dioxide levels on the station have always been higher than they are on the ground, but NASA always assumed the levels were within the non-harmful range. Between 2001 and 2012, carbon dioxide levels on the ISS typically stayed between 2.3 and 5.3 mm Hg (a measure of concentration);..” No reference to ppm units in entire article but lots about the common headaches tho: “On Earth, carbon dioxide is a trace molecule in our atmosphere, at a low 0.3 mm Hg. In space, exhaled CO2 builds up in the cabin..”

Mark - Helsinki
May 18, 2019 2:52 am

Growing food in an earth protected lower orbit is very different from growing out in open space without the protective shield provided by earth.

None of us will be alive when there is eventually a moon base, and our children will be long gone by the time we take on Mars.

Worthy of research of course but this money is much better spent making food down here easier to grow and cheaper to get.

Reply to  Mark - Helsinki
May 18, 2019 5:36 am

Were Mars worthwhile, it could be done with today’s technology. It would take enormous effort and breaking at least one international treaty, all requiring a really good reason. As it stands, Mars is just a lot of rocks of little value.

Were lunar regolith worth the processing cost, actual attempts at colonization might be worth discussion. As it stands, even if a nuclear fusion reactor was as easy and affordable as internal combustion engines, the processing of said regolith for He3.

If there is any progress on habitability in space, particularly above NEO, it will come from asteroid mining. Again, this requires breaking (or skirting with extremely loose interpretation of the wording) at least one international treaty, a near guarantee of profitability, etc.

From there, Earth-Moon Legrange points would become valuable enough to push for colonization. Construction of an artificial strong magnetic field is one method to counter radiation, though my money would be on a thick ice shield, with a metal (iron, lead, whatever) inner shell.

Reply to  Mark - Helsinki
May 18, 2019 5:52 am

NASA has been the greatest gift for any hydroponics grower on the planet.
They pioneered the concept of PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation), the use of LED lighting as well as nutrient delivery systems.
Money well spent IMHO.

Mike Ozanne
Reply to  Yirgach
May 19, 2019 2:06 am

So NASA has been the urban Weed growers friend?

Reply to  Mike Ozanne
May 19, 2019 6:32 am

Yes- that is called standing on the shoulders of giants.

Don K
Reply to  Mark - Helsinki
May 18, 2019 2:45 pm

“None of us will be alive when there is eventually a moon base, and our children will be long gone by the time we take on Mars.”

Careful. You’ll wake the Space Cadets up. If you think climate alarmists are irrational and wedded to emotion rather than facts, you haven’t dealt with the SCs.

One thing though, the moon and Mars have appreciable gravity, so water will (probably) stay in a substrate and plants can quite likely be grown in a more conventional fashion. A self-sustaining High Frontier type Earth orbiting colony would probably be a spinning cylinder with centrifugal force emulating gravity. Otherwise anyone who spends many years living there would surely find returning to Earth to be a horrible experience.

So, I expect that any serious attempt at a self-sustaining colony will have at least some gravity.

But sure, figure out how to grow some veggies in space. We’re apparently going to continue to spend $3B plus per year on the largely pointless ISS. We might as well get something for the money. Someday, when launch costs are much lower than today, humans will want to make the long journey to Mars. They might appreciate an occasional tomato or onion en route.

May 18, 2019 4:11 am

Rather than trying to grow difficult stuff, how about growing easy stuff. Algae comes to mind. link Algae could be grown in large water tanks which could also serve as radiation shielding.

Reply to  commieBob
May 18, 2019 5:43 am

Because algae is the opposite of delicious?

HD Hoese
Reply to  commieBob
May 18, 2019 5:51 am

When NASA started they were interested in growing algae to produce oxygen and funded research for it. Should be information about it somewhere.

May 18, 2019 4:29 am

So, Tupperware is involved in the experiment. The most productive thing to come out of it will be a new ad campaign by them touting the versatility of their containers (I can already see them floating around in the weightlessness of space). Beyond that the experiment is a waste of time and money, like most things done on the ISS.

Reply to  Dave
May 18, 2019 6:23 am

Ah yes! Plastic in space. Yet another pollution hazard for the BBC to use in its demonisation of that material. Can’t wait for the new “Blue Planet” series – “Black Space”, perhaps?

May 18, 2019 5:13 am

OT: Australian Election Result.

Labor and the left in general have lost, it appears the Morrison government will be returned with a majority.

Not clear what the watermellon result will be yet, but all the climate-change weenies have been gutted.

Reply to  WXcycles
May 18, 2019 7:38 am

OT: Australian national election result is known.

Morrison has just claimed victory, with 65% of the national vote counted. There are 11 seats still in doubt, and the Lib/Nats only need 3 of those seats for a clear majority in the House of Representatives.

The Government of Morrison also increased the Government’s seats within the Senate by at least 2 more.

Current national percentages:
Liberal/Nationals 41.3%
Labor 34%
Greens 10.1%
The remainder consists mostly of One Nation and Clive Palmer plus other Independents, but overwhelmingly the further ‘right’ Conservatives won within these too.

Tony Abbot has lost his seat in Parliament, after 25 years. Hopefully he’ll be nominated as the Australian Ambassador to the USA in the future.

There’s been a NET 1.83% swing towards the Morrison Government nationally. Conservative groups in general have increased their numbers all across Australia, and Australia has rejected the Leftist/Green faux climate-change hysteria agenda and the suicidally absurd socialist spending and taxing polices of Labor and the Greens.

Who do you call? … Yippee Ki-Yay mfers!


May 18, 2019 6:12 am

I am a little surprised at the negative comments here. Most experimental science is driven by simple curiosity and is often only practical as an accident. Rarely are experiments performed from dire necessity. That is the realm of sci-fi thrillers. Most experiments, no matter what the cost, are simply to see what happens and probably only pose more questions prompting more research. In other words, in many ways worthless.

May 18, 2019 6:12 am

As far as a moon colony is concerned it’s ok, since the moon is nearby. For Mars all this is waste of time, it might take centuries before permanent life long residencies come into being.
For that purpose none of current races (white, brown or black) of humans are suitable.
What is required are the green genetically modified humans, utilising selection of the plant genes. By consuming few mineral tablets with small amount of water with the presence of CO2, all required proteins and sugars can be internally produced, with the oxygen as the only waist product internally consumed for the proper function of the organism.
I’m sure that the CAGW concerned women currently on birth strikes, would happily and voluntary take meaningful participation in producing the new truly GREEN generation of humans.

May 18, 2019 7:03 am

I’m sure glad they are doing things that make sense.

“There comes a point where you have longer and longer duration missions, and you reach a cost benefit point where it MAKES SENSE to grow your own food,” said Howard Levine, chief scientist of NASA’s Utilization and Life Sciences Office at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center.
I would not want them to do anything that did not make sense.

Reply to  zipporah74
May 18, 2019 8:15 am

I’m not volunteering to go until they figure out how to raise cows and chickens in space. I refuse to live off of bean sprouts and lettuce up there.

Tom in Florida
Reply to  Dave
May 18, 2019 11:29 am

We’re sorry Dave, we’re afraid we can’t do that.

Reply to  Tom in Florida
May 18, 2019 11:52 am

But … but …, Major Tom – no more protein pills!

Mike Williams
May 18, 2019 8:37 am

Did I miss the part where this “experiment” needed to be performed on the ISS rather than on the ground…savings $M’s launching it into space?

Reply to  Mike Williams
May 18, 2019 9:40 am

Weightless conditions are in short supply on the ground.

May 18, 2019 9:59 am

Completely pointless. What is the point in wasting so much space and energy growing a tiny amount of food. That space can easily hold 10, 20 or even 100 times the amount of food as dried/preserved food.

May 18, 2019 4:11 pm

Sprouts in space.

May 18, 2019 4:45 pm

“NASA Testing Method to Grow Bigger Plants in Space”

In a teacup!?
Surely they jest?

“All units contain red romaine lettuce seed”

Almost anyone can sprout and start to grow lettuce seeds.
Sadly, the amount of nutrition in lettuce is lacking. Nor are the growing requirements of lettuce immediately translatable to plants with higher nutrition values.

Leaving the big question, why they are not raising amaranth, peanuts, soybeans or some other high nutrition plant? Learning to conquer the difficulties of growing highly nutritious foods in space instead of burger trimmings?

Reply to  ATheoK
May 18, 2019 6:30 pm


Reply to  Tom
May 18, 2019 10:08 pm

Potatoes are the ultimate food – you can survive on that and nothing else, although you may develope an odd accent, to be sure.

Peanuts have a hugely long growing time – spuds are ready in 100 days, and love nutrient rich environments, which I assume would be the astronaut manure, rather than having to take lots of Miracle Grow. It would seem pointless to have to take the entire set of disassembled plant nutrients with you, just to laboriously assemble them in space, and then disassemble the by eating, and eject the waste.
You can even grow potatoes from seed (I don’t mean seed potatoes, although that would also work, giving the option to constantly turn over new crops by planting the old. No viruses to cause production losses.)

Potatoes are brilliant! More vitamin c than an orange, more potassium than a banana, and so on and so forth.

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