Education

Students grow, test leafy vegetables mimicking conditions in space

Real research, real results for South Florida kids growing veggies for NASA

Fairchild’s Growing Beyond Earth Challenge asked South Florida middle and high school students at 124 schools to grow and test various leafy plants for use in future space missions.
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Fairchild’s Growing Beyond Earth Challenge asked South Florida middle and high school students at 124 schools to grow and test various leafy plants for use in future space missions.

Catherine Martinez’s passion for space brought her to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Spring Garden Festival in Coral Gables on Saturday. It also brought her to tears.

“I cry when I’m happy,” she said.

Catherine, 16, a Mast Academy junior, is one of the students presenting her findings to NASA scientists and Veggie project associates for Fairchild’s Growing Beyond Earth Challenge, which asked South Florida middle and high school students at 124 schools to grow and test various leafy plants for use in future space missions.

Of course, all of this had to be done in conditions that mimic those aboard the International Space Station, which is where Veggie comes in.

NASA and Fairchild gave students the tools to recreate the growing conditions of Veggie, a self-contained pod that uses the space station cabin’s carbon dioxide, as well as UV lights and nutrient delivery, to grow food.

“The students got a chance to really get to do honest-to-God real science,” said Trent Smith, project manager for NASA’s Veggie. “This is answering questions we don’t know the answers to. The answer’s not in the back of the book.”

And the students’ findings, Smith said, are significantly helpful.

So far, sorrel and chard stand out, Smith said. But he and his colleagues still need to look through all of the kids’ data before they make any final decisions.

“We are going to use the data — no joke,” Smith said. “And we’ll be able to make a selection of the next leafy greens to grow in space based on the work they did.”

Of course, ingredients are just part of it. To take that giant leap, astronauts need recipes, too.

“Now that we have plants in space, [the astronauts] just need recipes,” said 11-year-old Wesley Gelinas.

The Fairchild Garden House is flooded with color and activity as the Green Cuisine: Meals For Space Exploration challenge is underway.

For Green Cuisine, students were asked to create vegetarian dishes featuring these edible plants being researched with two conditions: the dishes must contain at least 100 calories and can’t use more than 250 square centimeters of growing space. NASA’s Charles Quincy, a research advisor and manager of life sciences and biological programs at Kennedy Space Center, helped judge the competition.

Wesley, a George Washington Carver Middle sixth grader, was up for the challenge when he came dressed in a Florida-orange NASA spacesuit to present his dish: the Cosmic Crispy Kale Bar, which is made of dried strawberries, kale, peanuts and puffed rice. When asked how it tastes, his smile fills his face as he replies, “really good.”

Taste and crunch are two important factors in both competitions. Quincy said it’s two of the most common complaints he gets from astronauts.

And yet, that doesn’t deter Wesley or Catherine from pursuing their dreams.

Like Catherine, Wesley wants to become an astronaut, too. “I think it would be a great experience,” he said. “I just like the fact that [Space] is very unexplored.”

Catherine, a self-proclaimed ‘Treky’ whose love of space was born out of her interest in science fiction, agrees.

“I love space so much, and it’s basically the final frontier.” she said. “It’s the future.”

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