Space travel is a popular topic in science and in film. “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, saw the main character use his skills as a botanist to grow food and survive on the planet. Such a feat may seem like Hollywood hype, but scientists at NASA, with help from Sodexo, world leader in Quality of Life Services, are working together to make growing food on Mars a reality.
When NASA and the Johnson Space Center were looking for participants to study plants growing in simulated Martian soil, Timothy Grayson, Sodexo Executive Chef at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, jumped at the opportunity to bring the project to the campus.
“We already have a Farm to Table program to educate students here at Whitworth University about growing food on campus for our use and to help our local community,” said Chef Grayson. “Adding the Martian soil simulant project fits well with our educational purpose.”
Chef Grayson received 10 lbs. of soil from a cinder cone in Hawaii called “Martian Regolith Simulant”—the closest thing to Martian soil on earth. Nicknamed “The Martian Salad Project,” the Sodexo team at Whitworth University built a greenhouse with a humidifier, fans and ultraviolet lighting. Every day, the team measures the fertilizer and water along with other data to report to NASA. Within three months, the project had successfully grown tomatoes, kale, oregano, basil and edible flowers—all from USDA organic-certified seeds.
Crops like leeks and sweet peas weren’t successful, but that isn’t stopping the Sodexo team from trying out other crops such as potatoes, which require a different set of variables. NASA plans to go a step further with the study by sending a miniature greenhouse to Mars in 2020 to test how the plants respond to the planet’s atmosphere. In the meantime, the Sodexo team at Whitworth University will continue to see what kind of harvest it can reap in “Martian soil” here on Earth.