UND Today

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Conference offers Space food for thought

Space Ag Conference at UND covers challenges, opportunities for farmers, scientists and CEOs

During last week’s Space Ag Conference in the Memorial Union, Pablo de León, chair of UND’s Department of Space Studies, spoke on research programs at the University addressing the challenge of providing food for NASA’s future deep space exploration missions. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

When it comes to deep space exploration or living on the surface of Mars, providing enough food for humans to remain healthy for months or years at a time is a critical challenge.

U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer

Speakers at the April 14 Space Ag Conference, which was sponsored by the Grand Farm Education and Research Initiative and the University of North Dakota and took place at UND’s Memorial Union, tackled the question of how nourishing food can be grown in space to make space travel and exploration a practical reality. The conference also provided an opportunity to connect NASA with what North Dakota researchers and businesses have to offer, as well as explain what NASA can offer businesses and research universities.

U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., the conference keynote speaker who participated virtually because of blizzard conditions in the state, outlined the role North Dakota can play in helping NASA develop solutions for providing future space explorers with the necessary sustenance to survive in space.

“Some people might be watching this and thinking the overlap of space and agriculture seems farfetched,” he said. “And yet, it’s really not farfetched at all. It’s quite significant on a very large scale.

Shawn Riley, chief information officer for the State of North Dakota, spoke during the Space Ag Conference. In-person attendance was limited because of blizzard conditions throughout much of the state. About 250 people attended virtually. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

“When you think about the things every human in the world needs – energy and especially food – and consider the fact that farmable land is shrinking, clearly higher yields on less land is something we in North Dakota have been involved in for a very long time.”

After mentioning the long history of space studies at UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, Cramer noted that likewise, “Space is something we’ve been involved in for a very long time. So the juxtaposition of these two incredible industries really makes all the sense in the world.”

Jonathan Gehrke, senior director of development for UND’s aerospace school, thanked the city of Grand Forks, UND, Grand Farm and Emerging Prairie in Fargo, as well as the conference partners, speakers and 250 attendees, some of whom attended virtually.

“Thinking about the relationships we have in North Dakota, the partnerships between our friends to the south and the whole ecosystem here, there’s a wonderful suite of opportunities for people to come together, think about big ideas and actually have an impact on them,” he noted.

Whether it’s using worms from earth to infuse barren Martian soil with organic matter capable of supporting plant growth, relying on fungus as a food source or employing robotic arms to monitor and tend to space gardens, a key conference message was that it’s likely that partnerships between government and private entities will be involved.

Andrew Jason (left) with Grand Farm and Jonathan Gehrke with UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences opened the conference by welcoming attendees. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

“We’re really excited about driving innovation that’s going to help our farmers in our region through space technologies,” said Andrew Jason, ecosystems director for Grand Farm. “I want you to think about the practical day-to-day applications for agriculture and think about the business opportunities.”

A round trip to Mars to establish a base would take an estimated three years. Bringing along enough food for every astronaut on the trip would require an enormous volume of precious cargo space, not to mention the fuel needed to transport it.

Ralph Fritsche, NASA senior project manager for space crop production in support of deep space exploration, discussed the challenges of providing food to astronauts aboard the International Space Station and how their diet continues to lack several key nutrients.

“When we talk about missions to Mars over longer periods of time, we have to recognize that food and nutrition really are the first line of defense for crew health and performance,” he said. “Our goal is to help supplement that by providing safe, nutritious and acceptable fresh food and add some variety to the crude diet.”

To solve the problem, Fritsche said collaborations with businesses, companies and universities will enable NASA to overcome the challenges it faces. He discussed the short-term and long-term approaches NASA plans to test.

“When I start talking about first missions to Mars, they’re going to include pick-and-eat crops that can be grown and consumed directly because we don’t have processing and preparation equipment that allows us to convert things into more meaningful meals,” Fritsche explained.

“Right now, we’re looking to start testing some of these systems in low-earth orbit on the International Space Station,” he continued. “In a little while, you’re going to hear about opportunities beyond the space station that are coming to the commercial world to continue that type of research.”

Joe Vacek, UND associate professor of aviation and chief operating officer of SafetySpect Inc., spoke at the Space Ag Conference about technology the company developed. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

A special seminar with representatives from NASA’s Office of Small Business Program highlighted opportunities that exist for North Dakota businesses and research entities to either employ technologies developed by NASA or assist the agency in solving the challenges it faces. These include Small Business innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

“A role that’s important for government to play is to knock down barriers to entry because we need all hands on deck if we’re going to enhance our own capabilities, both on earth and in space,” Cramer said. “We have to continue to invest in our young people, invest in STEM education, invest in research and development and to work together with the private sector.”

Trent Smith at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida described one such program for university students.

“We have the Technology Transfer University where entrepreneurship programs and business programs use our technology portal, which allows students to build business models around real NASA technologies,” he said. “It’s really exciting to find out what the different teams come up with at the end. Oftentimes, they can find markets we don’t know about.”

Other UND speakers at the conference included UND President Andrew Armacost; Pablo de León, chair of the Department of Space Studies; Joe Vacek, associate professor of aviation; and Michael Dodge, Space Studies associate professor.