Before Americans can realize Newt Gingrich's dream of building a moon colony, they must first send other living things to the rocky celestial body to test whether long-term survival is possible.
NASA plans to start by gardening on the moon. Studying plant growth, known as germination, in the lunar environment can help us predict how humans may grow too, said the space agency in a recent announcement of the experiment. NASA hopes to coax basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant, from tiny seedlings to hearty greens in one-sixth of the gravity they're used to here on Earth.
Plants, like humans, are sensitive to environmental conditions when they are seedlings. Their genetic material can be damaged by radiation in outer space, as well as by a gravitational pull unlike that of Earth. "If we send plants and they thrive, then we probably can," the statement read.
Humans would depend on plant life to live out their days in an extraterrestrial world, just like they do on their home planet. Plants would provide moon dwellers with food, air, and medicine. They would also, as previous research has shown, make them feel better by reducing stress, and even improve concentration—welcome side effects for those aware that their new home is built to kill them.
NASA hopes to cultivate its green thumb by sending a sealed growth chamber to the moon on the Moon Express lander, a privately funded commercial spacecraft, in 2015. The 2.2-pound habitat will contain enough oxygen to support five to 10 days of growth and filter paper, infused with dissolved nutrients, to hold the seeds. When the spacecraft lands in late 2015, water will surge into the chamber's filter paper. The seedlings will use the natural sunlight that falls on the moon for energy. An identical growth chamber will be mirroring the experiment on Earth, and the twin experiments will be monitored and compared.
Astronauts have been tinkering with plants in space for some time now, growing (and even glowing in the dark) aboard the International Space Station. Cultivating a garden on the moon, however, is the first genuine life sciences experiment on another world.