AMES, Iowa – Earth may be the only home we’ve ever known, but if we ever plan on travelling, we’ll need to figure out how to grow food in outer space, and on other worlds.
It’s a science fiction staple: living in outer space, and taking the story of humanity to the stars. But to get from science fiction to science fact, astronauts will need to eat. This year, the Conservatory at Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens is exploring exactly how to make that happen.
“The story was we’re going to be on a mission to another planet to colonize,” explains Indoor Horticulturist Ed Moran, “but that’s going to take a long time and we need to be able to grow plants and grow food on the way.”
Moran says one place to start is hydroponics: growing plants in a solution without soil. It allows scientists to manipulate the temperature, oxygen and pH levels, and the nutrient load.
Another way to feed hungry astronauts is aquaponics. It’s distinct enough from hydroponics due to the use of fish. In an aquaponics system, wastewater travels from a fish tank into a bio-filter. Then the water is sent to plants, which float on rafts. Another pump on the side diverts the water from the rafts toward plants on trellises and through crayfish tanks, and the whole process starts all over again. The biggest input is simply feeding the fish.
While hydroponics and aquaponics may seem like technology of the far future, both technologies can be useful to producers and researchers right now. And whether it’s living in outer space, or increasing efficiency in agriculture right here on the pale blue dot, Moran says the driving factor is a growing global population.
“We have to figure out a way to feed more people and still have a sustainable ecosystem,” Moran says, “and aquaculture is one of those ways we can achieve some of those practices.”
So for humankind to get to the stars, we may have to go through Iowa first.