Figuring out how to feed people in space is an important part of a larger effort to prove the viability of long-term human habitation in extraterrestrial environments. On May 12, 2022, a team of scientists announced that they had successfully grown plants using lunar soil collected during the Apollo lunar missions. But this isn’t the first time scientists have tried to grow plants in soils that don’t normally support life.
I am a historian of Antarctic science. How to grow plants and food in the far south of the Earth has been an active area of research for more than 120 years. These efforts have aided in a greater understanding of the many challenges of agriculture in extreme environments and ultimately led to limited but successful plant cultivation in Antarctica. And especially after the 1960s, scientists began to explicitly regard this research as a stepping stone to human habitation in space.
Early efforts to grow plants in Antarctica focused primarily on providing nutrition for explorers.
In 1902, the British physician and botanist Reginald Koettlitz was the first person to grow food on Antarctic soil. He collected some soil from McMurdo Sound and used it to grow mustard and watercress in boxes under a skylight aboard the expedition ship. The harvest was immediately beneficial to the expedition. Koettlitz produced enough that, during an outbreak of scurvy, the entire crew ate the vegetables to help stave off symptoms. This first experiment demonstrated that Antarctic soil could be productive and also pointed to the nutritional advantages of fresh food during polar expeditions.
Early attempts to grow plants directly in Antarctic landscapes were less successful. In 1904, Scottish botanist Robert Rudmose-Brown mailed seeds of 22 cold-tolerant arctic plants to the frigid little island of Laurie to see if they would grow. All the seeds failed to sprout, which Rudmose-Brown attributed to both environmental conditions and the absence of a biologist to help fuel their growth.
There have been many more attempts to introduce non-native plants into the Antarctic landscape, but these generally did not survive for long. While the soil itself could support some plant life, the harsh environment was not friendly to growing plants.
By the 1940s, many nations had begun to establish long-term research stations in Antarctica. Since it was impossible to grow plants outside, some people who lived in these stations took it upon themselves to build greenhouses to provide food and emotional well-being. But they soon realized that the Antarctic soil was of very poor quality for most crops beyond mustard and watercress, usually losing its fertility after a year or two. Beginning in the 1960s, people began to switch to soilless hydroponics, a system in which plants are grown with their roots submerged in chemically enhanced water under a combination of artificial and natural light.
By using hydroponic techniques in greenhouses, the plant production facilities were not using the Antarctic environment to grow crops at all. Instead, people were creating artificial conditions.
By 2015, there were at least 43 different facilities in Antarctica where researchers had grown plants at one point or another. While these facilities have been useful for scientific experiments, many Antarctic residents appreciated being able to eat fresh vegetables in the winter and found these facilities a boon to their psychological well-being. As one researcher put it, they are “warm, bright and full of green life, an environment one misses during the Antarctic winter.”
As permanent human occupation of Antarctica grew in the mid-20th century, humanity also began its advance into space, and specifically the Moon. Starting in the 1960s, scientists working for organizations like NASA began to think of hostile, extreme, alien Antarctica as a convenient analog for space exploration, where nations could test space technologies and protocols, including producing of plants. That interest continued into the late 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that space became the primary focus of some Antarctic agricultural research.
In 2004, the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona Center for Controlled Environment Agriculture collaborated to build the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. The project was designed to test the idea of controlled environment agriculture, a means of maximizing plant growth and minimizing resource use. According to its architects, the facility closely mimicked conditions on a lunar base and provided “an analog on Earth for some of the problems that will arise when food production moves to space dwellings.” This facility continues to provide supplemental food to the South Pole Station.
Since the construction of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the University of Arizona has collaborated with NASA to build a similar Prototype Lunar Greenhouse.
As people began to spend more time in space towards the end of the 20th century, astronauts began to put into practice the lessons of a century of growing plants in Antarctica.
In 2014, NASA astronauts installed the Plant Production System aboard the International Space Station to study plant growth in microgravity. The following year, they harvested a small crop of lettuce, some of which they later ate with balsamic vinegar. As Antarctic scientists had argued for many years, NASA claimed 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 focused on plant cultivation technologies and their applications in space in a semi-closed system. The plants grow in the air, while the sprayers spray chemically enhanced water on their roots. In the first year, EDEN ISS was able to produce enough fresh vegetables to make up a third of the diet for a crew of six.
As in the Antarctic story, the question of how to grow plants is central to any discussion of possible human settlement on the Moon or Mars. People eventually abandoned efforts to farm the harsh Antarctic landscape for food production and turned to artificial technologies and environments to do so. But after more than a century of practice and using the most modern techniques, food grown in Antarctica has never been able to sustain many people for long. Before sending people to the Moon or Mars, it would be wise to first prove that a settlement can survive on its own in the midst of the icy southern plains of Earth.
Daniella McCahey is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University.