NASA Is Sending Basil to the Moon

Humans need plant life to survive, so the space agency is sending a few seedlings to live and prosper on the moon before we can.

One small sprout for basil, one giant leap for mankind.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Dec. 4, 2013, 10:33 a.m.

Be­fore Amer­ic­ans can real­ize Newt Gin­grich’s dream of build­ing a moon colony, they must first send oth­er liv­ing be­ings to the rocky ce­les­ti­al body to test wheth­er long-term sur­viv­al is pos­sible.

To de­term­ine if sus­tained hu­man life there is pos­sible, NASA plans to start garden­ing on the moon. Study­ing plant growth, known as ger­min­a­tion, in the lun­ar en­vir­on­ment can help us pre­dict how hu­mans may grow too, said the space agency in a re­cent an­nounce­ment of the ex­per­i­ment. NASA hopes to coax basil, turnips, and Ar­a­bidop­sis, a small flower­ing plant, from tiny seed­lings to hearty greens in one-sixth of the grav­ity they’re used to here on Earth.

Plants, like hu­mans, are sens­it­ive to en­vir­on­ment­al con­di­tions when they are seed­lings. Their ge­net­ic ma­ter­i­al can be dam­aged by ra­di­ation in out­er space, as well as by a grav­it­a­tion­al pull un­like that of Earth. “If we send plants and they thrive, then we prob­ably can,” the state­ment read.

Hu­mans would de­pend on plant life to live out their days in an ex­tra­ter­restri­al world, just like they do on their home plan­et. Plants would provide moon dwell­ers with food, air, and medi­cine. They would also, as pre­vi­ous re­search has shown, make them feel bet­ter by re­du­cing stress, and even im­prove con­cen­tra­tion — wel­come side ef­fects for those aware that their new home is built to kill them.

NASA hopes to cul­tiv­ate its green thumb by send­ing a sealed growth cham­ber to the moon on the Moon Ex­press lander, a privately fun­ded com­mer­cial space­craft, in 2015. The 2.2-pound hab­it­at will con­tain enough oxy­gen to sup­port five to 10 days of growth and fil­ter pa­per, in­fused with dis­solved nu­tri­ents, to hold the seeds. When the space­craft lands in late 2015, wa­ter will surge in­to the cham­ber’s fil­ter pa­per. The seed­lings will use the nat­ur­al sun­light that falls on the moon for en­ergy. An identic­al growth cham­ber will be mir­ror­ing the ex­per­i­ment on Earth, and the twin ex­per­i­ments will be mon­itored and com­pared.

As­tro­nauts have been tinker­ing with plants in space for some time now, grow­ing (and even glow­ing in the dark) aboard the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. Cul­tiv­at­ing a garden on the moon, however, is the first genu­ine life sci­ences ex­per­i­ment on an­oth­er world.

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