4-H member Eva Brandon shows off her “Outredgeous Red Romaine Lettuce,” grown from sister seeds to lettuce grown on the International Space Station.

USDA and NASA Explore the Frontier of Agriculture

It might surprise you to learn that USDA conducts a lot of research with the scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This includes plant-related research on the International Space Station that may lead to creative new ways to improve American agriculture, protect the environment, and contribute to better human health. Experiments explore such things as how astronauts’ bones and muscles are affected by living in space and what kinds of plants could grow in outer space.

 

USDA Uses a Lot of NASA Tools

As we partner, USDA will work with NASA to explain the data we need here on Earth to support our agricultural industry, healthy forests and soils, and healthy diets for consumers. NASA scientists can then find ways to make measurements and conduct studies that help support both our work—including by researching tools to help farmers prepare for droughts, best grow crops, better take care of our environment, and measure the snowpack in the mountains.

And, as NASA considers a human mission to Mars, USDA can help figure out how to feed astronauts on longer missions.

 

Seeing Results

From remote sensing, robotics, GPS, and technologies for growing crops in space, NASA’s space exploration and earth science efforts have yielded amazing benefits for farmers, including many “spinoff” technologies. These spinoffs—technologies we develop for space that help improve life on Earth—now help farmers keep produce fresh on the way to market, enable robotic systems for mass harvesting fruit, and even guide tractors to improve efficiency and reduce fuel costs.

Example of Earth-ag technologies we learned from space:  

  • NASA’s Gravity Probe B program led to a surprising outcome: a GPS autosteering technology for guiding automated agricultural equipment.

 

NASA’s Veggie Program

Astronaut Steve Swanson speaks to Gwynn Park High School students in Brandywine, MD

NASA is excited about a plant growth system called Veggie—a deployable growth chamber now on the International Space Station that may help expand in-orbit food production capabilities and provide astronauts with fresh food.

Veggie uses a flat-panel light bank that includes red, blue, and green LEDs for plant growth and crew observation. VEGGIE’s unique design is collapsible for transport and storage and expandable up to a foot and a half as plants grow inside it.

Just this August, astronauts for the first time ate food that was grown in space!

“Learning how to make crops more productive and heartier helps with exploration into the solar system and back here on Earth.”
–Trent Smith, project manager