Hoped-for space garden already yields fruit

Not since the days of Tang has NASA created more products for consumers.

Astronauts sitting down to fresh salads. Space-station crew members crunching into veggies, rather than sucking "essence of broccoli" from a foil-wrapped pack.

NASA's vision of a garden of space-grown delights is moving closer to harvest this week, when the shuttle Atlantis makes its expected return tomorrow with a new crop - weeds.

Never mind that the plants won't survive the return flight. Or that they don't taste very good. While it still may take years before an astronaut bites into a juicy spear of asparagus, blasting plants into space is already yielding a cornucopia of earthbound products - from new perfume to light-emitting diodes that treat cancer.

Perhaps not since the early years of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), when orange-flavored Tang burst onto store shelves, has space-borne food and plant research delivered such diverse consumer benefits.

Consider the "space rose." When researchers sent a rose into space in 1998, they expected a shift in scent, because gravity would no longer hold plant oils in the stem. Instead, scientists discovered an entirely new aroma, never smelled on earth.

International Flavors & Fragrances, a New York company that partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), recreated the fragrance. The scent now forms part of $19-an-ounce Zen perfume.

WCSAR is one of 17 commercial space centers that partner with corporations to develop new products. The reasons are partly political: Congress looks far more likely to spend money exploring space if NASA can show benefits back on earth.

There are also scientific reasons. "The effects of gravity create a huge curtain that blocks our view of what happens at a small scale," says Blake Powers, director of outreach for NASA's Space Product Development Program. Weightlessness gives researchers insights they can translate into new processes and products.

Like a better refrigerator. When commercial growers store their harvest, they extend the shelf life of their fruits and vegetables by getting rid of the ripening agent they naturally emit. But none of those methods work in space.

So scientists at the University of Wisconsin developed a new system for NASA. Now, KES Science and Technology Inc., best known for making the produce-misting sprays in grocery stores, is selling the technology to supermarkets and others.

"Sales are very good, considering it's a new concept," says Paul Cerny of KES. "Conservatively, we're looking to see if we could add one to three days of shelf life in conjunction with other forms of quality control."

The research continues. The soon-to-return Arabidopsis plants, which have spent three months aboard the International Space Station, already suggest that plants grow virtually as fast in space as they do on earth. (Previous studies, in less rigorously controlled space environments, said otherwise.)

Weijia Zhou, director of the WCSAR, will analyze the seeds and grow them on another space-station mission to see if weightless food can regenerate itself continuously.

"NASA is very anxious to know whether there's technology to develop a food ... so that the crew can eat fresh vegetables every day," he says.

The scientists picked Arabidopsis, which hails from the same family as cabbage and cauliflower, because its already mapped genome can be studied at the genetic level.

"The key thing here is that NASA does not want to give astronauts pills," says Anthony Pometto, director of the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center at Iowa State University in Ames.

The work spans from improving the containers that deliver the light, heat, air, and nutrients that space plants need to improving the taste of tortillas. NASA likes tortillas because they don't generate crumbs to gum up sensitive space equipment. But right now, food loses some of its taste in space, points out Dr. Pometto. He muses: "If we can develop things that encapsulate taste to give them a burst of flavor in their mouth...."

Earth's candymakers must be salivating already.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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