Photo: Taylor Jones

NASA conducted some experiments after the lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s that brought back lunar material, but these were nothing like what Paul and Fair attempted. “A small amount of regolith material came into contact with plants, and the data showed no major negative effects,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s chief scientist for astrobiology. But Paul and Fair’s new study is more ambitious. “This is a unique experiment in actually growing these plants in the regolith, with supplemental material of course. It’s a first, and that’s why we’re very excited,” Bhattacharya said.

Today, NASA doesn’t have much regolith to share with scientists, but they have been gradually distributing it to high-priority research. The agency recently opened one of the last samples collected in 1972 to study the regolith at the Apollo 17 landing zone. The new Artemis program, Apollo’s successor, is now ramping up, and the agency expects more samples to arrive as astronauts return to the moon in a few years’ time.

Learning how to grow food off Earth can be important because every gram sent to space takes up space on a spacecraft and increases its cost and fuel requirements. Additionally, in remote, isolated environments such as space stations or lunar habitats, a little greenery can go a long way toward a crew’s mental health, if not a lot of food. “Having the touch and feel of a plant can have psychological benefits,” says Bhattacharya.

For these reasons, astronauts and researchers have begun testing different ways of growing food on the International Space Station. Paul and Ferl’s research could be an important step toward space agriculture. “This is an impressive study for two reasons. They’re using actual Apollo samples, and they’re applying modern biological tools,” said Kevin Can, a geologist and space resources researcher at the Colorado School of Mines. Kevin Cannon said he was not involved in the paper. But Cannon said other options for growing plants and vegetables without soil, such as hydroponics, aeroponics or growing cells in reactors, may be more effective for ISS or lunar missions.

Going to Mars, on the other hand, requires long journeys and long-term visits. With the planet so far away, it will be more difficult to deliver food supplies, which could make it a better place to try crops on a larger scale, he said. Researchers have already started growing plants, including cress, in simulated Martian soil, which they can try out with real plants when NASA returns samples from the Perseverance Mars rover mission. If it works, a botanist and astronaut like Mark Watney could one day grow potatoes on the Red Planet — but not until someone figures out a way to help Earth plants grow in space’s regolith Thrive, not just survive.

Still, for Paul and her colleagues, space farming, or at least space gardening, will be our future. “Here we introduced part of the moon to biology, and it worked. To me, it was so symbolic. When we leave Earth, we take plants with us,” she said .