Agriculture in Space

Consulting on NASA's controlled environmental agriculture program

Sara Kuwahara, a lecturer in the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department, will fulfill a lifelong dream in June when she joins NASA’s Laboratory Support Services and Operations unit at the Kennedy Space Center as a visiting scientist.

Kuwahara, who earned a doctorate in ag and biosystems engineering from the University of Arizona, was selected from a pool of applicants to spend 12 weeks consulting on the operation’s controlled environmental agriculture program — a blend of engineering, plant science and computer-managed greenhouse control techniques that are used to enhance plant growth.

I have dreamed of this since I was in high school. To help develop potential labs to be used on the moon and Mars is both exhilarating and an honor.

— Sara Kuwahara

“I will be evaluating the test chambers they currently have designed for plant growth in space and looking for ways to update and optimize the technology,” she said. “My research is specifically focused on the use of ultra-fine bubbles for oxygenation and ozonation of hydroponic water.” Similar research is underway at Cal Poly as Kuwahara and two students, bioresource and agricultural engineering majors Rob Ellison and Angelie Cecka, work with Plenty, an indoor vertical farming company headquartered in San Francisco, to help improve the company's water recycling efforts. “We are helping to test different prototype systems to improve the reuse of plant factory water,” Kuwahara said.

NASA has worked for decades on controlled environment agriculture, evolving the process as new technology emerges. NASA’s Visiting Scientist/Engineer Program is designed to increase interactions between U.S.-based university researchers, corporate partners and scientists at Kennedy Space Center. The team of scientists selected alongside Kuwahara will be focused on establishing research pathways to develop crop production systems for space exploration.

“The idea is to work toward a completely regenerative life support system,” Kuwahara said. “The growth chamber allows us to measure every single component of what is being used such as lights, water and nutrients and use that data to make the necessary improvements. I am looking to improve the amount of available oxygen in the root zone, as well as working on treating recycled hydroponic water. This is all to make NASA’s grow system more regenerative and self-sufficient.”

Kuwahara said is looking forward to bringing what she learns while at the Kennedy Space Center back to students at Cal Poly and will continue to look for ways to collaborate on future projects that her students may benefit from. “I have dreamed of this since I was in high school,” Kuwahara said. “To help develop potential labs to be used on the moon and Mars is both exhilarating and an honor.”


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