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Can we grow veggies in space?


In the 2015 movie "The Martian," Matt Damon played a botanist stranded all alone on the inhospitable planet.


MATT DAMON: (As Mark Watney) So I got to figure out a way to grow three years' worth of food here on a planet where nothing grows.


Enter one undergrad.

EMMANUEL MENDOZA: Howdy. My name is Emmanuel Mendoza. I'm a junior aerospace engineering major, minoring in mathematics and agricultural systems management at Texas A&M University.

CHANG: Mendoza was in middle school when he watched "The Martian" for the first time, and the concept intrigued him.

MENDOZA: What can we do with Martian soil? What modifications, if any, can we make to the soil in the future to, you know, make it more habitable for terrestrial plant growth on a different planet? So I guess extraterrestrial plant growth.

SHAPIRO: Now in college, he's running an experiment, trying to do what Matt Damon's character did - grow plants in Martian soil - well, simulated Martian soil.

CHANG: It's a tall order because Martian soil is quite different from the soil here on Earth.

MENDOZA: It doesn't have organic matter, and it's also missing some certain macronutrients that contain nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur.

SHAPIRO: To supplement some of those missing nutrients, Mendoza turned to black soldier flies, specifically their larva.

MENDOZA: They can break down almost any bio matter, and they can turn it into really useful byproducts that both we need, but also animals that we consume need. And you can use black soldier fly frass as a nutrient substitute.

CHANG: Frass is just a fancy way of saying larva poop.

SHAPIRO: Mendoza mixed simulated Martian soil and frass in different ratios to see what best supported growing English pea plants.

MENDOZA: Frass does seem to have a certain added benefit. At about 10% mixture, it seems to add enough nutrients to the soil but also not add too many.

CHANG: He's even seeing growth in 100% simulated Martian soil, though the plants are less healthy and have smaller leaves.

MENDOZA: So that's been really interesting, very exciting that it's not just frass.

SHAPIRO: Mendoza recently presented his experiment and initial findings at the Entomological Society of America's 2023 conference.

CHANG: But he's not quite done with the project. Pea plants take about 10 to 12 weeks to fully mature, and Mendoza's are almost there.

MENDOZA: All of the plants that are growing right now are exhibiting flowering. If they haven't already started growing pea pods, they are flowering, which is awesome.

SHAPIRO: Soon he'll harvest the pods. And once he's done collecting that data, he says he'll compile his results into a paper. And thinking far into the future, Mendoza would jump at the opportunity to go to Mars himself.

MENDOZA: To maybe not be Mark Watney - I'd prefer not to get stranded on Mars - but to be an archetype, inspiring people to learn more, and you really do a lot with available resources.

CHANG: But he'll have to finish his junior year at Texas A&M first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.