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Safe for Space

Safe for Space:

Animation: Earth and other planets revolve about the sun

Scientists Explore Ways To Grow Food for Astronauts


Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are working to help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prepare for human missions to the moon--or maybe even Mars.


Graphic: Planet EarthGraphic: Earth as seen from the lunar surfaceGraphic: Mars, the Red Planet


Cartoon: An astronaut in his spacecraft unsuccessfully tries to eat food that he's squeezing from a tube; bits of food floats here and there

If space explorers are going to stay there a long time, they'll have to grow their own food. That's because resupplying them with food from Earth would be too expensive and difficult.

Cartoon: Rocket flies through space

NASA calls all the things they'd need to survive "life support systems." NASA scientists want to use what we have here on Earth to help humans live in space or on the moon or Mars. NASA sees plants as an important part of these life support systems.


Cartoon: An astronaut grows a plant inside a protective space bubbleJust by doing what comes naturally, plants could help the space missions in several ways. They could produce food, purify water, and recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen.

When grown hydroponically (in water instead of soil), plants could help purify "gray" water, or water that astronauts wash with, says Anabelle Matos. She is a microbiologist at ARS' Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania.

But plants also can be home to lots of invisible pathogens. These are bacteria and other microorganisms that could make astronauts sick.

Animation: Tiny vegetables grow inside three test tubes

Graphic: Blob-shaped microbesThat's why Matos is exploring the use of "competitive exclusion." This refers to using "good-guy" microbes to fight "bad-guy" microbes, the pathogens that can make people--including space travelers--sick.

On Earth, competitive exclusion happens when one microbe species crowds another from a choice spot, resource, or habitat that both need to survive. As a result, the microbial "loser" is less able to survive, reproduce, and build its population at the site, explains Matos. She works in the ARS center's Food Safety Intervention Technologies Research Unit.



Cartoon: Pair of hands hold a tiny growing plantMatos thinks it's possible to develop treatments of good-guy microbes that could stop certain pathogens like Salmonella, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and E. coli 0157:H7 from growing on food.

On a moon base or mission to Mars, this could help make sure that food crops will keep space travelers well-nourished and fit for exploring--or returning home, for that matter.

Animation: Mars spinsAnimation: Earth rises above the moon's horizon

 Cartoon: Marooned on a planet and holding a gas can, an unhappy astronaut hitchhikes; behind him is his broken-down surface rover vehicle




Click here to find out what once happened when an astronaut became sick on a mission.



Click here to learn more about NASA's Advanced Life Support research project.

By Jim Core, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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