Ed Rosenthal recently highlighted how his Canadian research is informing NASA plant-growing on the International Space Station (ISS).
His company, Florikan, specializes in polymer coatings to release fertilizers for plants over a long period of time. The research attracted attention from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and has been used for years in the Veggie series of plant experiments. Rosenthal collaborated directly on a successful proposal for Chinese cabbage and dwarf tomato research in orbit.
“It’s all about quality control,” Rosenthal said during an alumni event at Concordia University held in-person and broadcast online Wednesday (Sept. 28). “Whether I’m working with NASA or working with a farmer, quality controls everything. Products have to be consistent, and they have to always perform the same way for all.”
Rosenthal graduated from Sir George Williams University in 1974, months before it merged with Loyola College to become Concordia. His family business, he recalled, began in a garage in the style of many a Silicon Valley success. But his focus on quality, he said, is what allowed his company to grow to a large manufacturing business.
Moreover, space is an example of where quality especially does need to shine, given that the environment is so extreme that tech basically needs to work right out of the box upon shipment in orbit.
“It’s got to be sustainable because, what we’re working on the ISS is practice for going to the Moon and in time, for going to Mars,” he said. “So it has to work. It’s got to be foolproof.”
NASA, he said, was a perfect partner to be introduced to the demands of space. While a new business for Rosenthal, he said the agency is respectful and helpful. “They don’t talk over your head. They never talk down. You’re a person.”
The applications on Earth have already been demonstrated for this in-space technology. Growers use less fertilizer while seeing increased crop yields and less environmental damage. Moreover, the tech can be used even in areas lacking in infrastructure, allowing for business opportunities in places like northern Canada. “It’s another down to earth way that space technology helps to feed a growing population,” Rosenthal said.
Joining Rosenthal during the discussion was Gioia Massa, a NASA scientist normally based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida working on food production for the ISS. Massa provided a brief history of Veggie, which has seen crops ranging from lettuce to flowers.
“In terms of how safe the food is, we assess that by first growing a set of lettuce in space and having it returned to Earth, where we test a number of different aspects of that crop,” Massa explained. “We looked at the food safety of that crop, and we didn’t find anything that led us to believe that it wouldn’t be safe to eat or to grow enough food.”
The focus of Veggie is to identify “highly productive plants and plants that are a very small stature, and so we select crops that have a very high edible proportion of their yield.” In a place like Mars, she explained, crews will have limited food preparation and cooking equipment, which is why early crops have been focusing on pepper, radish, herbs and similar.
“Once we are established on Mars and we have a long term base, we may have more equipment to be able to process and cook food, and so then things like sweet potatoes or white potatoes or beans could easily be grown and used to provide food for the diet,” Massa added.
The participating astronauts and cosmonauts not only have eaten the food, but found the satisfaction of growing it in orbit “a source of enjoyment,” so much so that KSC scientists are hopeful they can allow future crews to pick the plants they want to grow.
The scientists have been working to control the conditions in orbit, such as providing a little less nitrogen after noticing it was producing “more flowers than we’ve ever seen” on pepper plants and causing some plants to grow so tall that they were unable to support themselves.
Some of the emerging challenges is not only addressing the different chemistry in microgravity, but solubility of nutrients and that the water available to plants tends to float and cling, the researchers said. But they framed the plant tech as crucial given that NASA is already investigating sustainability in other facets of ISS research, such as the famous urine to water recycling that supplies drinking water on the orbiting facility.
The stepping stone for plant research between the ISS and Mars likely will be the moon; while experiment production (and any plant work) is at an early stage, NASA plans to put boots on the surface in 2025 and a Canadian is slated to fly around the Moon on Artemis 2 in 2024. In Canada, the CSA recently awarded a nearly $250,000 contract to Canadensys to ” develop a concept for a lunar greenhouse designed to support crewed lunar habitation.”