Mold on ISS plants

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In December four of seven zinnia plants in a greenhouse on ISS became sickly or died because they were receiving too much water and developed mold.

The story doesn’t really tell us much, but this paragraph reveals I think some fundamental management problems in the way NASA is running the station:

ISS commander and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly reported the mold to Mission Control Dec. 22 just as Veggie principal investigator Trent Smith was trying to manage the water problem. In pictures, Smith saw water on the plants a few days before. He told Discovery News he was trying to relay a command from NASA’s station operations team to increase fan speed in Veggie, but the mold developed before the command could be put through. One solution was, on Christmas Eve, to designate Kelly “commander” of Veggie. Kelly now has more autonomy to make changes to Veggie’s conditions if he feels the plants need it.

The scientist noticed a problem but was unable to cut through the communications bureaucracy to talk to the astronauts so that changes could be made quickly. Meanwhile, the astronauts on board ISS had not been given the freedom to make common sense changes themselves. The result is that some of the plants died.

The solution, to give an astronaut more “autonomy”, is one that the Russians learned a long time ago on their Mir space station. It was also a lesson NASA learned even longer ago on Skylab. Moreover, when astronauts are finally flying interplanetary spaceships to the planets with greenhouses just like this, they will have to have that autonomy, no matter what rules NASA establishes. It seems amazing to me that NASA is still learning this lesson now.

One more thought: It is not really a problem that the scientist had trouble reaching the astronauts quickly. In fact, it probably indicates an area of management that NASA is handling well. Communications from the ground up to ISS can be a major problem, as everyone wants to talk to the astronauts and if NASA didn’t control that communications the astronauts would never have time to do anything. Thus, placing limits on that communications makes sense, though once again it also requires that the astronauts be given a great deal of freedom to make their own decisions, as they might not be able to talk to the right experts whenever necessary.


  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Thus, placing limits on that communications makes sense, though once again it also requires that the astronauts be given a great deal of freedom to make their own decisions, as they might not be able to talk to the right experts whenever necessary.”

    It now seems prescient that Andrew Weir put a botanist in the crew of his fictitious mission to Mars in his book “The Martian.” Although he wasn’t a NASA employee (or contractor), Weir seems to have done enough research to have found many realistic problems for his protagonist to overcome — especially in communications and in botany.

    These problems — mold and timely communications — and others that have and will come up, are the reason that the ISS is such a good research tool. Not only are we Earthlings learning scientific lessons, we are learning engineering, process, management, and political lessons, too.

  • LocalFluff

    I think the ISS is complicated to operate for several reasons, one being that it is pretty much a first of its kind, but most of all because of the complicated organization of national space agencies and the global space science community, and commercial companies to that. I think that Bigelow can design a space station inhouse which is much easier to operate with much more autonomy for the crew.

    The ISS is a laboratory, it should not be judged as a spaceship prototype. I think that a prototype of a Mars spaceship will have to be built in LEO before the design of the real thing is finalized. The ISS gives medical and much other basic science data about spaceflight, but it is not at all designed or operated as an interplanetary spaceship will have to be. And I don’t think that international is the way to go interplanetary, too much politics and special interests. At most a few leading space agencies could take responsibility for separate components, such as the launch vehicle, the spacecraft and the Mars surface assets. But even then a regional financial or political crises could easily suddenly stop everything with enormous waste of sunk investments.

  • pzatchok

    Anyone can build anything.

    Its the design approval that must start with and stay with one entity.

    As it stands NASA is now just farming out components with general design goals and leaving it to each agency to finalize the designs and then build the parts.

    You don’t build anything like that and expect something great. Hell your just happy it even works at that point.

    ISS was designed by a committee.

    In part to experiment with ideas but also in part to make other governments feel nice about being involved.

  • PeterF

    Maintaining healthy plants in space should be a major focus of ISS. Any “permanent” space station, colony, or asteroid miner”s self propelled tin can will necessarily be filled with living “air conditioners”.

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