NASA turns to Tupperware to help grow space veggies
Growing fresh vegetables aboard the International Space Station (ISS) may be a morale booster, but it does take up a lot of the crew's schedule. In an effort to make space gardening less time consuming, NASA is teaming up with Tupperware Brands and the technology company Techshot to improve the current experimental hydroponics system used aboard the station.
First flown to the ISS in 2014, the Vegetable Production System, (aka the "Veggie" facility), is an experiment for growing plants in zero gravity in a plastic greenhouse. It consists of a collapsible plastic tent with a controllable atmosphere lit by red, blue, and green LED lamps to promote growth. Since dirt and space travel don't mix, the seeds are embedded in rooting "pillows" that take the place of soil to retain water and give the roots somewhere to grow.
The problem is that the pillows don't hold onto water very well, so the hydroponic system keeps drying out unless it's tended regularly. Given how much it costs to keep an astronaut on the station, time spent watering the lettuce is about as economical as hiring a brain surgeon to mow the lawn, so a team led by Howard Levine at the Kennedy Space Center is working on some upgrades for the system.
One key example is the semi-hydroponic Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) being produced by Tupperware. With over 75 years of experience working with food-grade plastics as well as injection molding and other plastic manufacturing processes, Tupperware is producing a new disposable pillow made of plastic mesh that uses capillary forces and unusual geometries to replace gravity and hold water in like a zero gravity sponge while permitting root formation.
Meanwhile, Techshot is providing assistance with requirements management, safety, verification, and integration tasks as well as expertise in low-gravity fluidics and other areas.
The PONDS devices are scheduled to fly on two SpaceX Dragon cargo missions to the ISS in the latter half of 2018, with six of the pillows to be installed in the Veggie system at one time.