Utah State University researchers Frank Salisbury and Bruce Bugbee see beyond hybrid wheat thriving in hyroponic gardens to a day when the fruit of their experiments will feed human colonies on the moon and Mars.
Is is that vision, of mankind planted safely outside earthly limitations, that has kept the two plant scientists committed to space agriculture - despite tight funding and the knowledge they may not live to see their research implemented."It's long-range research that really has to be done now to be used later," explained Bugbee, 38, the principal researcher for USU's Controlled Ecological Life Support System project.
"And it's just plain interesting." he added. "We're trying to duplicate all the finctions of planet Earth in a relatively small capsule."
Both Bugbee and Salisbury, 62, who serves on NASA's Aerospace Medical Advisory Committee, say it could be 20-30 years or more before a permanent human colony is established on the moon and another decade beyond that before settlement of Mars.
Nonetheless, they are assured their work will survive them and reach out to the stars. "I don't think we can seriously talk about a permanent colony on the moon or Mars without talking CELSS." Salisbury said.
While the funding for the hydroponic project - about $130,000 a year since it was approved by NASA in 1981 - is miniscule compared to the billions spent on the nation's manned space flight program, Salisbury and Bugbee point with pride to its accomplishments.
Simulating as closely as possible the conditions of a lunar or Martian colonial farm through variations in lighting and atmosphere, the project has grown a Mexican dwarf variety of wheat - Yecora Rojo - with yields of 60 grams of edible wheat per square meter per day.
That is five times the estimated world record of 12-14 grams, Salisbury said.
Salisbury and Bugbee, believing they are near the theoretical production limits for wheat in an extraterrestrial colony setting, say they will next turn their attention to wheat's performance in zero gravity - a crucial consideration forthe day when mankind embarks on space voyages too long to be sustained by storedfood.
To that end, they are preparing an experiment for a future space shuttle mission. NASA has approved the project, but it has yet to be scheduled for flight, the two said in telephone interviews from USU's Logan campus.
The results of the experiment could help resolve the current debate among space scientists over whether a manned round-trip flight to Mars, estimated to lasttwo years or more, will need a space farm, not only for food production, but airpurification.
Critics see plants as unreliable and would prefer using a chemical based recycling system for food, or storage of food and oxygen for the trip. Such a payload would require development of massive new rockets to hurl the spacecraft toward the red planet.
Salisbury and Bugbee argue that while requiring less mass, a space farm could feed the Mars mission's crew and purify air and water supplies. For example, a 13-square-meter space farm could feed one person indefinitely.
Looking beyond exploration to colonization of the moon and Mars, the researchers believe a farm about the size of a football field could provide the food and oxygen needs of 100 or more people. It also would be a vital cog in the colony's water-purification and recycling system.
Another factor NASA is studying is the psychological benefit of plant life to humans confined within a space vessel or colony, perhaps longing for their home planet.
"On a long trip, there's no question that there would be a psychological value," Bugbee said. "But how much? I mean, could you get by with a small rhododendron?"