Why Future Space Farms Depend on Plants Grown in Antarctica

Figuring out how to feed humans in space is an important part of a larger effort to demonstrate the long-term viability of humans in extraterrestrial environments. On May 12, 2022, a group of scientists announced that they have Successfully planting trees with the soil of the moon gathered during the Apollo moon missions. But this isn’t the first time scientists have tried to grow plants on soils that would not normally support life.

I am historian of Antarctic science. How to grow plants and food in the Earth’s southernmost regions has been an active area of ​​research for more than 120 years. These efforts helped to understand more about the many challenges of agriculture in harsh environments and eventually led to limited, but successful, farming in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to explicitly consider this study as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.

The first efforts to plant trees in Antarctica were mainly focused on providing nutrition for explorers.

In 1902, English physician and botanist Reginald Koettlitz was the first to grow food on land in Antarctica. He collected some soil from McMurdo Sound and used it to grow mustard and watercress in boxes under the skylights on the expedition ship. The crop was immediately beneficial to the expedition. Koettlitz produced enough that during a scurvy outbreak the entire crew ate greens to help stave off their symptoms. This early experiment demonstrated that Antarctic soil can be productive, and also showed the nutritional advantages of fresh food during polar expeditions.

Initial attempts to plant trees directly in the Antarctic landscape were unsuccessful. In 1904, Scottish botanist Robert Rudmose-Brown sent seeds from 22 species of arctic cold-tolerant plants to the small, frozen island of Laurie to see if they would grow. All of the seeds failed to germinate, which Rudmose-Brown attributed to both environmental conditions and the absence of a biologist to help stimulate their growth.

There have been many attempts to introduce non-living plants into the Antarctic landscape, but generally they do not last long. While the soil itself can support some plant life, the harsh environment is not conducive to growing plants.

By the 1940s, many countries had begun to establish long-term research stations in Antarctica. Since it is not possible to grow trees outside, some people living at these stations have arbitrarily built greenhouses to provide food and spirituality. But they soon realized that the soil in Antarctica was too poor quality for most crops other than mustard and watercress, and it often lost its fertility after a year or two. Starting in the 1960s, people started switching to soilless hydroponics, a system where you grow plants with their roots immersed in chemically enhanced water under a combination of artificial light. and natural.

By using hydroponics in greenhouses, plant production facilities do not use the Antarctic environment to grow crops at all. Instead, humans are creating artificial conditions.

By 2015, there were at least 43 different facilities on Antarctica where researchers had planted trees at one point or another. While these facilities are useful for scientific experiments, many Antarctic residents appreciate being able to eat fresh vegetables in the winter and see these facilities as a huge benefit to their psychological well-being. surname. As one researcher put it, they are “warm, bright and full of green vitality – an environment one misses out on during the Antarctic winter.”

As the long-term human occupation of Antarctica increased in the mid-20th century, humanity also began to operate into space – and specifically to the Moon. Starting in the 1960s, scientists working for organizations like NASA began to view the hostile, extreme, and alien Antarctica as a convenient analog for space exploration, where nations Experts can experiment with space technologies and protocols, including factory production. That interest continued into the late 20th century, but it was not until the 2000s that space became the primary target of some agricultural research in Antarctica.

In 2004, the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona Center for Controlled Environmental Agriculture collaborated to build the Antarctic Food Growth Division. The project is designed to test the idea of ​​environmentally controlled agriculture – a means of maximizing plant growth while minimizing resource use. According to its architects, the facility closely simulates the conditions of a Moon base and provides “an Earth analog for some of the problems that would arise when food production is introduced.” transition to a space habitat.” This facility continues to provide additional feed to the Antarctic Station.

Since building the Food Growth Chamber in Antarctica, the University of Arizona has partnered with NASA to build a similar Prototype Lunar Greenhouse.

The EDEN ISS is the latest experiment designed to mimic a food production facility on the Moon and successfully house a crew of six.


As humans began to stay in space longer in the late 20th century, astronauts began using lessons from a century of tree planting in Antarctica.

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

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

Just as in Antarctic history, the question of how to plant trees is at the heart of any discussion about the possibility of human settlement on the Moon or Mars. In the end, humans abandoned the effort of farming Antarctica’s harsh landscape for food production and turned to man-made technologies and environments to do so. But after more than a century of practice and the use of the most modern techniques, food grown in Antarctica was never able to support many people for long. Before sending humans to the Moon or Mars, it might first be wise to demonstrate that a settlement can survive on its own amid the southern plains of the frozen Earth.

Daniella McCahey is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University.

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