Space For Thought
Why do scientists love science fiction? What does sautéed spinach have to do with space farming? What does the future hold for agriculture? Over the coming months, we will publish a series of guest thoughts and commentaries that answer these questions and many more about space, the future of food and space farming. If you would like to contribute a commentary, please get in touch with our space farming team using the contact link above. Enjoy reading!
V3PO stands for Vegetative Propagation of Plants in Orbit
Or to put it simply: “Can plants cuttings build roots in space?”. Maria Koch, David Geray und Raphael Schilling are pursuing a visionary quest to answer this question and, maybe as a result, astronauts on long missions in the future will be able to eat fresh vegetables. As leader of the V3PO project, I am very proud that we have managed to get our experiment onto the ISS and that we have also achieved such broad recognition for our idea and our project.
For many years, I have been running an after-school science club for pupils from the Edith Stein School in Ravensburg, with the goal of participating in "Jugend forscht", Germany's annual Young Scientists competition. Our pupils are attending a vocational high school with a focus on natural sciences, and in the classroom we often conduct experiments with predetermined methods. We do not usually have time to develop and implement our own experimental hypotheses and procedures. I feel it is particularly valuable to help interested pupils acquire a deeper understanding of nature, science and research. Only those who understand nature, can protect it. It is also always a new challenge for me, to set aside my normal role as a teacher, and to work together with the students to develop an idea, find solutions and put them into practice. I am able to challenge the students and at the same time, I can nurture their talent. I have always considered it important to use simple tools to do good scientifically precise research.
The V3PO project has a very special meaning for me personally. As a gardener and horticultural scientist, plant propagation and growth are two of my main topics. I am fascinated by the question, “What do I have to do to grow a new plant from a piece of another plant i.e. from a cutting?” Even more exciting is the question of how a cutting behaves in micro-gravity. As soon as I heard about the opportunity to conduct an experiment on the ISS, I knew immediately that it had to be about the ability of plants to propagate.
To find a school team for this quest was easy, but carrying out the project was extremely challenging: Alongside the research work, we had to raise €40,000 – a difficult and unfamiliar task for a school. But thanks to the perseverance and stamina of our team and wide-ranging support, we did it. We finally reached our goal! We are the first German school team to be accepted onto NASA’s educational program. We have financed the entire project and through crowdfunding, we raised over €40,000. The team really went the extra mile – they wrote countless sponsorship letters, conducted interviews on the radio and in the press, made films (they were even on the south-west regional TV news) and got involved in many fundraising activities. We were able to interest BASF in the idea and get technical and financial support from them. As a result of the innovative focus of the experiment, the German National Space Agency also became a financial partner to the project. This is how we were able to ensure that the cuttings really will be sent to the ISS.
Through their research and many experimental trials, our three young scientists have designed an experiment, not for planet Earth, but for the International Space Station. For their visionary study, they won the local heats of Germany’s Young Scientists competition 2016 held in Friedrichshafen, taking first prize in the Biology category. At the regional heats in Stuttgart, they won second prize!
Nevertheless, without the help of Christian Bruderreck, we definitely would not have come so far! Christian is project manager for life science experiments in space at Airbus and he took over the entire technical organisation and coordination required for the mission. He invested a great deal of his free time and not only looked after the technical aspects, but also managed contact with the sponsors, kept us motivated, organised meetings and inspired us to keep going with his tremendous optimism. He has been supported by two engineering colleagues, Maria Birlem and Constantin Winter. I would like to give my personal and sincere thanks to all the supporters that have enabled us to be the first German school to conduct such an experiment.
Of course, until astronauts in micro-gravity can enjoy a diet with fresh vegetables, it will be a long journey. and in this respect, the V3PO experiment can only be seen as basic research. But now we are looking forward to planting our cuttings in the experiment container at the Cape Canaveral laboratories, and, hopefully in February 2017, we will be cheering when the transport rocket SpaceX lifts off to take our experiment to the ISS. Until then, the fascinating question remains unanswered: “Can plants cuttings build roots in space and how do they grow?”.
About the author
Brigitte Schuermann has been a teacher at the Edith-Stein School since 1995. After training to be a gardener, she studied agricultural sciences and horticulture at Hannover University. She teaches agricultural biology, biotechnology, biology and technical studies. In addition, she is department head with responsibility for the vocational high schools in Ravensburg.
Since 2007, Brigitte Schuermann has entered nine school teams in the biology category for "Jugend forscht" Germany’s Young Scientists competition. Of these nine projects, six have won the local heats, one team took first place and two teams won second place in the regional finals and, in 2012, one project reached fifth place in the German national finals. In 2015, the "Jugend forscht" organizers awarded Brigitte Schuermann an honorary prize for her commitment to encouraging new talent.
Two small human steps for mankind’s giant leap
Claudia Kessler (pictured center with shortlisted candidates for Germany's first female astronaut) is chief executive of HE Space and one of the rare female leaders in the space business. Qualified as an aerospace engineer and MBA, Claudia has worked for more than 25 years in the international space environment. Since opening the first German office of HE Space in Bremen in April 2004, she has built it up to become one of the most significant suppliers of engineering services to the space industry. Claudia was a founder of Women in Aerospace Europe and she is passionate about supporting female high-potentials with their career development.
Evolution is a unique success story, particularly for us human beings. In the course of millions of years, we have started walking on two legs, invented the wheel and learned how to use fire and to make tools. While other impressive beings have died out, the comparatively tiny humans, have broadened their outstanding intellectual and motoric skills. In spite of this, and after thousands of years, human beings as the crowning glory of creation have become what they could perhaps remain forever - package tourists on board spaceship Earth:
- Humans are flying through the universe at an enormous speed – at 137,000 kilometres per hour or 30 kilometres per second - but we can hardly say what we have passed by.
- Our goal seems not to be to grow with new experience, but to adapt new things to what we already know - and to go on a fully air-conditioned shopping trip in the end.
- We seem to be afraid of sharing the wider picture with others. Instead, we keep on dividing the whole picture by using walls and frontiers.
As package tourists on their journey through life, people today would still rather give up unlimited possibilities for a limited illusion: Looking at one’s own country through a microscope instead of seeing the world through a telescope; stuck in the matrix instead of standing stable with feet on the ground.
The illusion, however, is being shattered - and with it the walls of the matrix. It started to shatter when the first humans travelled into space and saw the wider picture, discovering that many of our world’s problems are manmade.
And it is only through space technologies that we are able to start solving them: Spaceflight today is the only universal and really globally-operating technology for the protection of our natural basis of life: soil, water and atmosphere. Be it precise predictions of expected harvests, the detection of new water sources beneath the surface of deserts, or the prevention of contamination to ground, water, and air, human and robotic spaceflight is already today a really global solution for global problems.
Yet, the fact that the world beyond Earth also belongs to our natural resources, is still not enough in focus. Spaceflight tomorrow can, and will, inevitably serve both purposes: helping to prevent the earth from collapsing under the weight of a population of seven and a half billion, growing at a rate of two more humans per second, AND helping to find ways to add outer space resources, like our moon and even other planets, to our Mother Earth and form an integrated living sphere for the expansion of humankind.
Apart from pure necessity, it is only natural that humans long to conquer the space environment and take it as their living space. On Earth, this common thread has run through all of history. No matter if we think of Phoenicians, Vikings or Polynesians on the high seas, merchants or discoverers on overland routes like the Silk Road, or the airlines of our world, since the first one was founded by Count Zeppelin, humans have always invented means of transport and looked for ways to connect familiar points by installing new roads.
Since humans cannot simply be modified to adapt to hostile environments, the environments in focus have to be modified to fit the needs of humans. One of those central challenging questions about living in space is - as on Earth - how do we create a sustainable basis to feed humans, to install water cycles, to generate the air to breath? Finding the right answers will be the first human step for mankind’s giant leap to get out there into the universe to stay.
The history of experiments in space dates back to the times of the Russian Saljut and Mir stations, and many small steps also on today’s International Space Station have led to remarkable successes. Even more remarkable than the progress made by highly specialized scientists, is the fact that the challenge has reached the younger generation too, like the team members of V3PO, who now have a chance to test their ideas on plant propagation live in space, in zero gravity, on the ISS. They are still students, but the seriousness of their approach is a clear indicator that educated younger generations have already left the question of “why” behind, and today, just ask “how” will we live in space one day?
Yet, another step needs to be taken too. A step so basic, so natural, so utterly human, that, after more than 60 years of space exploration, the mere fact that it has never been considered by a high-tech country like Germany, may well leave the unprepared contemplator in blank amazement. The fact that, until today, no one in this country has given serious thought to the circumstance that it takes both sides of the human population - male AND female - to render real development possible.
We decided to change this and have initiated the search for “Germany’s first female astronaut” who will be trained for a mission on the ISS in 2020. Out of 408 applications, we have now picked the best 120 candidates and presented them to the public in Berlin on September 14, 2016.
Though just 35 years of age in average, each of the women can boast a CV that would easily fill the lifetime achievement record of 90 percent of the population: there are pilots, scientists and engineers.
The ticket to heaven costs 30 million dollars, money that we will try to acquire via crowdfunding and major industrial sponsors.
The final two astronaut trainees in the countrywide contest for this once-in-a-lifetime-experience will be entrusted with the main task to find out how the female body reacts when exposed to zero-gravity, and which biological and pharmaceutical developments might be necessary to help women adjust to the conditions of long-term missions into space.
Depending on the flight opportunity available for the ISS mission in 2020, the training will be conducted either in the United States under the auspices of NASA, or in the famous cosmonaut training centre of Star City in Russia.
The mission will last 7-10 days, but its results will serve for years to come: showing that it takes just small human steps to enable mankind to make a giant leap: Years, in which today’s package tourist from spaceship Earth can develop into a real traveller who is able and worthy to become a free citizen of the galaxy.
V3PO – One step into the future
Volker Schmid is ISS team leader in the Human Spaceflight, ISS and Exploration department of Germany's Federal Space Administration. In 2014, he was mission manager for astronaut Alexander Gerst's Blue Dot mission to the ISS and is now responsible for Gerst's forthcoming mission as ISS commander in 2018.
Imagine a moon base in the future, occupied permanently or temporarily by humans, or a mission to Mars: the crew has to eat – and their diet needs to be as healthy and as varied as possible. And yet, astronaut food today is either freeze-dried or tinned. Fresh fruit and vegetables are always greatly welcomed by the astronauts, but they are extremely rare because they perish so quickly. Sometimes there are a few apples when a new cargo vehicle docks on the ISS, but it’s really only possible to store fresh products in the deep freeze. Unfortunately there aren’t any appliances like that on the International Space Station. Ideally you would take some soil or a little piece of biosphere with you on your journey: a small vegetable plot, a garden or a greenhouse to grow food crops. In science-fiction films on TV and in the movies, we are already seeing hydroponic farms in space. This was depicted very vividly in The Martian.
But is it something like that really possible? Could such a vision become reality one day? To investigate these possibilities, many different types of experiments are being conducted on the ISS. They range from basic research on plant growth, particularly root development in micro-gravity, and the search for the right technology such as propagators and lighting systems, to the first mini-greenhouses in space. A few years ago, lettuce was harvested from an American greenhouse on the ISS and last year from a Japanese one. Half of the Japanese lettuce leaves were returned to earth for scientific analysis, the other half were greatly enjoyed by the astronauts on board.
Normally, space agencies are commissioned to conduct these types of experiments by industry and they are developed and monitored by top class scientists. But there’s another way. With the support of crowdfunding and sponsorship, three school students from the Edith-Stein School are putting a bold idea into practice. Their experiment known as V3PO is investigating the vegetative propagation of plants in orbit. The study will be conducted in two experiment containers, called AFEx Habitats. These tiny greenhouses have two chambers containing a solid nutrient gel into which the students will plant their cuttings. They want to see whether the cuttings develop roots and propagate new plants in the same way as on Earth.
Such relatively simple school experiments are absolutely ideal to interest young people in spaceflight, technology and science – after all what could be more exciting than working on an experiment that will actually fly to the ISS?
The V3PO vegetative propagation project is one more step towards developing methods and systems that will enable us to grow and harvest agricultural crops on a lunar base, or on long-duration space flights in the future. One day, this vision could really become reality.
Learn more about the work of the German aeronautics and space research center