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Gardening and Greenhouses for Space

by Frances Nichols

Mars Base 0 is the name given by the International Space Exploration and Colonization Company (ISECCo) to their greenhouse in Fairbanks, Alaska. This greenhouse is an intermediate step in the Nauvik project, which ha s the ultimate goal of producing enough air, food and water to support one person in a closed environment. The greenhouse will be used to design plant ecostructures and develop planting techniques. This data will be used to determine what size to make Nauvik.

  Mars Base 0 at a glance may look just like an ordinary greenhouse, but upon closer inspection it is rather complex. It measures 24 feet wide and 44 feet long. The crop growing area uses 80 percent of the total area with the remaining area for living space, fish, chickens, and a furnace. Such a structure would be very similar to that needed for colonizing Mars.

     The greenhouse will be shaped like a Quonset hut (half cylinder). It has a sealed concrete floor. Two foot high concrete walls will contain the soil for crops. The south wall, to the top of the roof, will be glass (or some ot her clear material, like lexan). The north side of the cylinder's walls will be made of plywood coated with fiberglass and resin to seal it. The axis of the structure will be oriented east/west, with the north half super-insulated. The concrete, plywood a nd all glass junctions will have an airtight coat of fiberglass cloth saturated with epoxy resin. Vents will be cut in both ends and when we want air closure we'll seal them. The door will be an old freezer door.

     We expect to import air, water, and some nutrients. How far we can carry closure of Mars Base 0 depends in part on how well we manage to seal our structure. During the summer we will not attempt closure of air or water because we'll be using vents to prevent overheating. In the winter, however, we will be able to shed excess heat and keep the structure partially sealed.

    Excellent progress was made on the construction of Mars Base 0 during the summer of &1996. A local company donated rebar for us to use. All labor for ISECCo is volunteer. Early in the summer we got the site excavated and leveled. A long, full day was spent by thirteen volunteers pouring the concrete pad. Next, we built forms and hung the rebar for the concrete walls. Finally we poured the concrete walls. They were filled by hand with wheel barrows and buckets (this was the most economical way to do it).

     During 1997 we plan to finish construction and get our first greenhouse crops planted. However, we have not been ignoring the most important aspect of our research: gardening. We have had gardens almost every year since ISECCo formed in 1988, with this year's being the largest.

     Planting techniques in Mars Base 0 will be more complex than the usual backyard garden. We will be experimenting with ways to maximize yield while minimizing the area planted. We have already begun doing so in our garden with mixed success. The most successful area this summer was the carrot patch. We planted a four-foot by four-foot square. The carrot rows were 3 inches apart and the carrots in each row were 2 inches apart. Ninety days later we harvested thirty pounds of 4 inch carrots from that square.

     Other crops we planted this summer were turnips, rutabaga, beets, zucchini, tomatoes, wheat, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, peas, green beans, peppers, yellow squash, sunflowers, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, radish, lettuce, and canoli (re-seeded from last year). Our garden was thirty by eighty feet and produced 713 pounds of crops.

     Wheat took up a quarter of the garden. The wheat had poor productivity possible due to the cold summer, not an Alaskan crop, overcrowding, improper planting (we planted it by hand, and just made up how to do it!), or lodging (fell over). Potatoes were planted in different areas of the garden, but still took up thirty percent of the total area planted.

     We planted a triangle of leaf lettuce with an area of sixteen square feet. Although less than half of the seeds germinated, by the end of July we had more leaf lettuce than we knew what to do with. Other crops that were extremely productive were rutabaga, turnips, and kohlrabi.

     Our brussel sprouts, cucumbers, sunflowers, onions, and head lettuce had no productivity. They were probably affected by the unusually cold summer. The temperature also limited productivity of the beets and yellow squash. In Mars Base 0 we will be better able to regulate temperature and moisture to limit loses of this sort.

     Weeding was a major job in the garden and is expected also to be in the early stages of Mars Base 0 and Nauvik. We held a four hour meeting every week to weed. There were usually two to five people at these meetings. In a gar den you get weed seeds imported from the surrounding area. Also we had lots of weeds because we only used horse manure for fertilizer, and horse manure is loaded with weed seeds. In a closed system, like Mars Base 0 and Nauvik, once the weeds are kept under control for a year, the next year there will be fewer weeds until ultimately (with proper diligence) there are no more weeds.

     Gardening on Earth may seem only like a relaxing hobby; especially when a quick trip to the supermarket is all it takes to get dinner. However, considering the enormous cost of shipping goods into space, gardening becomes a necessary component of living in space. Developing the technology needed to provide enough food for people while in a closed system is a relatively unexplored aspect of space research. The International Space Exploration and Colonization Company is vigorously pursuing this goal.