Growing Beyond Earth
Growing Beyond Earth (GBE) is Fairchild’s NASA-funded classroom science project designed to advance research on growing plants aboard spacecraft. As NASA looks toward a long term human presence beyond Earth orbit, there are specific science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) challenges related to food production. GBE is addressing those challenges by expanding the diversity and quality of edible plants that can be grown in space. On Earth, GBE is also improving technologies for gardening in urban, indoor, and other resource-limited settings.
Established in 2015 as a partnership between Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and NASA’s Exploration Research and Technology Programs, GBE is now underway in 130 Miami-Dade middle and high schools with a special focus on under resourced, Title 1 schools. Since the beginning of 2018, schools in 35 additional states have been involved outside of Florida.
GBE is unique in its focus on real scientific research, enabling student “citizen scientists” to contribute data toward NASA mission planning. Each classroom receives a Fairchild-designed plant habitat that is analogous to the plant growing equipment aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Fairchild and NASA scientists train teachers to conduct in-classroom GBE experiments, and students then share experimental data online with NASA.
Several new candidate plants have been identified for spaceflight through the GBE program. These include varieties of pak choi, cress, and kale that produced greater amounts of biomass than the varieties previously tested in NASA labs. We have observed that some plants can grow under a wide range of classroom environmental conditions, possibly indicating high adaptability and stress tolerance. Some of the best varieties from the 2015-2017 classroom studies are now in experimental trials at NASA Kennedy Space Center. Student data have also identified some unusual edible plants as possible candidates, including a tough and fast- growing succulent called ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum), and a Chrysanthemum relative called shungiku (Glebionis coronaria). To date 10 student-tested varieties have been selected by NASA researchers to be ground tested at Kennedy Space Center’s Food Production Research Area and in 2019 two of those varieties were tested aboard the ISS.
Teacher surveys indicate that GBE is improving STEM instruction in middle and high schools. The program is uniquely effective in serving groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields, as defined by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Through the program, students have become more knowledgeable about STEM topics, more confident when participating in STEM activities and more interested in STEM careers.
Throughout history, plants have been essential to exploration. Today’s space travelers are continuing an ancient tradition, bringing food plants on voyages into new and unfamiliar environments. Schoolchildren can now participate in the next phase of human exploration, helping determine which plants might feed explorers on the way to Mars.