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Veggies in space scientist visits SBISD campuses

Ed Rosenthal, center back, shared Veggies in Space information with Bendwood SPIRAL students during Space Science Past and Present week.


National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) scientists are continuously designing and adapting technologies to make long distance space travel more possible for astronauts. Eating fresh produce to supplement their diets while in space, or even on Mars, requires much research and development since growing plants in zero-gravity is not like gardening your home vegetable patch!

Ed Rosenthal, a retired polymer chemist¸ spoke to students at two Spring Branch ISD campuses on October 24 about how his company, Florikan, collaborated with the space agency to provide encapsulated and controlled-release fertilizer for NASA’s Space Veggie project.

At Bendwood, third through fifth grade students in the gifted and talented program (SPIRAL) heard Rosenthal speak as part of a week of space-related guest speakers invited to the campus by Molly Nipper, Science/Technology/Engineering/Math (STEM) teacher to celebrate the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon.

Engineering students from Memorial High School (MHS) came to Academy of Choice (AOC) to hear Rosenthal’s presentation in the afternoon, and were joined in the auditorium by AOC middle and high school students and Cornerstone Academy seventh and eighth graders.

“He is thrilled to be able to come [from Florida] to speak to our students,” said Nipper. “We are so fortunate for him to come on his own expense to speak to our students.”

Rosenthal explained to the students that the Space Veggie project has brought together scientists and engineers from many disciplines to solve the problems involved with growing produce in micro-gravity on the International Space Station (ISS). Without the pull of gravity, water floats around, nutrients don’t absorb as they do on earth, and roots grow in all crazy directions.

“I thought it was unsurmountable when we began in 2012,” said Rosenthal.

A NASA  team of scientists, along with other crop experts, developed a highly sophisticated grow chamber to test out germinating and growing the first veggie crop in space: red romaine lettuce.

After years of rigorous research the Florikan expertise and quality control  lab was selected by NASA to provide the controlled release fertilizer used in the veggie box on ISS.

On August 9, 2015, the first batch of lettuce was harvested on the orbiting space station after 33 days of growing—on earth it takes about two months to grow a crop of lettuce!

The students applauded when they saw a video of the ISS astronauts celebrating the historic harvest by ‘toasting’ each other with lettuce leaves.

"We had 30 of our engineering students [attend]," said Noel Bayaborda, engineering teacher at Memorial High. "[The students] were amazed that they could grow food in the International Space Station for 33 days.  It was educational and we will be hoping to get a chance for our students to work as interns in NASA." 

The MHS and AOC students also applauded when Rosenthal shared how so many of NASA’s innovations end up helping people on earth. Using the Space Veggie program as an example, he said that organizations are working to help solve the world’s hunger problem by transferring the techniques for growing food more quickly, in limited space, using less natural resources, and less damage to the earth.

Another spinoff technology from NASA that Rosenthal told the students about is the ammonia recovery system NASA developed to cleanse human waste into fertilizer and clean water on the ISS.

“They cannot send truckloads of clean water up into space, so they have to recycle,” said Rosenthal. He stressed that this NASA technology can be put to use in our communities, too.

“I won’t stop until this technology is in place [in water treatment plants],” he said, as students gave this idea to conserve water another round of applause.

Hearing about the myriad of professions involved with NASA research, and the possibilities for using the technologies to help people on earth, opened the minds of the students who heard from Rosenthal

“I think they were really inspired,” said Nipper at the conclusion of Rosenthal’s speaking engagements in SBISD.

Submitted by Becky Wuerth, SBISD Communications