Space Wheat for Life Support and Farming
The following NASA press release contains data on a plant specifically
engineered for space-based regenerative life support. Using plants to reduce resupply needs is an important
topic of study to the Artemis Project.
Headquarters, Washington, DC April 15, 1996
Utah State University
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY DEVELOPS SPACE CROP
The first crop developed specifically for growth in
space has been developed at Utah State University, Logan, Utah.
A space-age wheat variety, USU-Apogee, produces the
equivalent of almost 600 bushels of grain per acre -- three
times the top yields from most fields.
It took more than a decade to develop a wheat suitable
for space farms, where the artificial sun always shines,
carbon dioxide levels are high and space is at a premium.
Apogee thrives under those conditions. Its heads emerge 23
days after germination, about a week sooner than some
varieties grown in controlled environments.
So far, Apogee's baking characteristics pass muster, at
least on Earth. Making bread in space is still uncharted territory.
The wheat variety's development was funded by NASA's
Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications
and the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station.
On long-duration space missions, it will be more
economical to provide life support supplies by producing
food, such as Apogee, potable water and breathable air by
recycling metabolic and other wastes.
It's not known whether the new variety will make it to
the moon or Mars, but it's likely to be grown on the
International Space Station scheduled for completion in 2002.
"We're tickled to death with Apogee," said space
scientist Doug Ming, of NASA's Johnson Space Center in
Houston. "We're seeing much higher yields than the other
varieties we've tried. It's also much shorter."
Bruce Bugbee, the USU crop physiologist who developed
the variety, has worked with NASA for almost 15 years. He
heads a NASA-supported university research facility to
develop food crops for space in a complex consisting of 30
computer-controlled growth chambers of various sizes, in
addition to several greenhouses.
Previously, the only wheat to be grown in space was
Superdwarf, a short (about 10 inches tall) line that Bugbee
originally found in Mexico. Superdwarf's short height is an
attribute, but it grew poorly and produced low yields in the
prototype space farms, known as regenerative life support systems.
Apogee, which is the term for the point in orbit
farthest from Earth, is a dwarf hard red spring wheat,
developed from thousands of segregating lines. It produces
few tillers, or branches, which tend to sap energy that a
plant devotes to grain production.
It fits the bill for space farming-- short (about 18
inches tall when mature), producing an unusually large
number of seeds, and luxuriant greenleaves. Other wheat
grown in controlled environments tended to develop yellow
leaf tips characteristic of calcium deficiency, often
killing 30 percent of the leaf.
"Superdwarf required perfect conditions for growth.
Apogee doesn't," Ming said.
To boost growth and yields, plants destined for space
are always bathed in light, at a constant temperature and in
air enriched with carbon dioxide, Bugbee said. Their roots
never touch soil. All are grown hydroponically or in a
Apogee isn't likely to be as popular on Earth as other
crop varieties. Its yields are comparable to taller field
varieties, but its shortness hampers harvest and limits its
ability to compete with weeds.
Bugbee provides free samples of Apogee to research
laboratories around the world -- and to schools. To receive
seed of Apogee, contact Bugbee at the USU Crop Physiology
Laboratory, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-4820,
(801) 797-2765, or e-mail (email@example.com).
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Updated Sun, Aug 15, 1999.