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December 12, 1996
David Morse, Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA (Phone: 415/604-4724) Lynnette Harris Utah State University, Logan, UT (Phone: 801/797-1359) RELEASE: 96-256 NASA HARVEST OF MIR SPACE WHEAT MARKS U.S.-RUSSIAN FIRST U.S. astronaut John Blaha recently harvested the first crop of healthy plants grown through a complete life cycle in the microgravity of space aboard the Russian space station Mir, according to NASA scientists. Called "Project Greenhouse," the 32 plants, a superdwarf wheat variety involved in this experiment, are part of a joint cooperative initiative with NASA; Utah State University, Logan, UT; the Institute of Biomedical Problems Research Center in Moscow; and the Space Research Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia. Unlike previous short-term experiments, these plants were allowed to develop at a normal growth rate and appear to have matured fully to produce the desired seed-containing heads, project scientists report. "Harvest of this wheat on Mir represents the first time that an important agricultural crop and primary candidate for a future plant-based life support system has successfully completed an entire life cycle in the space environment," said Dr. David Bubenheim, project co-investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA. "The development of plant-based, regenerative life support systems is critical to sustaining a crew during longduration missions such as Mars exploration," he continued. "Successful growth of the wheat crop through all developmental phases, culminating in the harvest of seeds, demonstrates that the environment of space poses no obstacles
to the biological components of a regenerative life support system. This information is critical for the future application of these systems to recycle wastes and provide a crew with water, air and food. This, in turn, makes the crew self-sufficient, thereby enabling the practical and economical exploration of space," Bubenheim concluded. "Completion of a plant life cycle in microgravity would prove that there are no 'show stoppers' -- no stages in the life cycle that absolutely require gravity for completion," said Dr. Frank Salisbury, Principal Investigator, Utah State University. "Based on first-hand reports and videos of the plants growing aboard Mir, it appears that our super-dwarf wheat plants have achieved that critical goal," he concluded. The plants were grown in "Greenhouse" Svet, a small growth chamber originally built in Bulgaria during the late 1980s according to a joint Russian/Bulgarian design. The hardware was sent to Mir in 1990. Svet has a compact growing area of about one square foot and can accommodate plants up to 16 inches tall. Fluorescent lamps provide light at about one fifth the intensity of sunlight, which is adequate for plant growth. The wheat was grown in a substrate material similar to kitty litter but loaded with plant nutrients. Water was injected directly into this material and transferred to the wheat seeds by a system of wicks. Day length and water injection into the plant growth medium were both controlled automatically to set points adjusted throughout the experiment by project scientists. A key objective of Project Greenhouse is to determine the relative effects of the microgravity environment of space on plant growth versus other environmental factors. These include light, temperature, carbon dioxide and oxygen concentrations, water vapor, water availability, substrate moisture levels and cabin pressure. To that end, instrumentation built at Utah State University was sent to Mir and added to Svet to monitor the key environmental parameters of interest. Bulgarian collaborators added new lights and a new controller. Additional information on the effect of environmental factors will be provided by a second experiment currently underway on Mir. Immediately following the first harvest, a second set of wheat seeds was planted. These plants will be
frozen when about forty days old and returned to Earth for biochemical analysis. This will provide the first opportunity to analyze the biochemistry of growing green plants as they were in space, before their fast-paced biochemical processes have a chance to re-acclimate to Earth's gravity, according to project scientists. - end EDITORÕS NOTE: Images to accompany this release are available to news media representatives by calling the Headquarters Imaging Branch on 202/358-1900. NASA photo numbers are: Color: 96-HC-748 B&W: 96-H-748 Color: 96-HC-749 B&W: 96-H-749 Color: 96-HC-750 B&W: 96-H-750 Color: 96-HC-751 B&W: 96-H-751 Color: 96-HC-752 B&W: 96-H-752 Color: 96-HC-753 B&W: 96-H-753