In President Obama’s 2010 speech on the country’s space program, he undid the previous administration’s plan to send American astronauts back to the moon: “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.” My favorite comedy show of all time, Mr. Show (starring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross) has a sketch about blowing up the moon, in which a former Apollo astronaut says, “I walked on the moon. I did a push-up, I ate an egg on it… What else can you do with it?” Well, NASA has an answer to that question — it intends to grow plants on the moon.
The Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team, comprised of NASA scientists, as well as contractors, volunteers, and students, will try to grow a couple of plants such as basil, sunflowers, and turnips in specially constructed cylindrical aluminum planters that contain sensors, cameras, and other equipment that will broadcast images of the plants as the grow (or don’t grow). The plant habitats are intended to be self-sufficient, able to monitor and regular temperature, moisture, and their own power supply.
One of the coolest aspects of this mission is that the images and information sent by the planters won’t just be monitored by NASA — volunteers and kids will be helping too. NASA will send these aluminum plant habitats to schools around the country so they can grow the same plants that NASA will attempt to grow on the moon. These school-grown plants will serve as a control group for the experiment, but more importantly, it will allow kids to share in NASA’s research and to get excited and invested in the infinite possibilities of space. Carl Sagan would be thrilled, as I’m sure Neil deGrasse Tyson is.
Google’s Lunar XPRIZE will support this mission by incentivizing private companies to figure out a way to land a rover on the moon for exploration. With $40 million in prizes on the line, it’s the largest international incentive-driven jackpot in history. To get the prize, a company must safely get a robotic spacecraft to the moon’s surface; travel 500 meters across, below, or above it; and send two “mooncasts” back to Earth. All of this has to happen by the end of 2015, and it’s likely that one of these competitors will be carrying a payload of plants.
Even though the project ultimately may not succeed in growing plants on the moon, the attempt to bring life to planetary body is a first. And even if the experiment fails, we’ll learn a lot about agriculture, biology, and the possibility of growing food and sustaining life on other planets, especially (or at least most immediately) Mars. And best of all, because of the Lunar XPRIZE, NASA’s not out millions of dollars if this doesn’t work. Perhaps their partnership with a private company will help spur a shift in the industry where corporations and governments work together to achieve space goals.