Tupperware in space!


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Capitalism in space: Tupperware and NASA have partnered to provide space-grown gardens an artificial material for roots to grow and be watered.

First flown to the ISS in 2014, the Vegetable Production System, (aka the “Veggie” facility), is an experiment for growing plants in zero gravity in a plastic greenhouse. It consists of a collapsible plastic tent with a controllable atmosphere lit by red, blue, and green LED lamps to promote growth. Since dirt and space travel don’t mix, the seeds are embedded in rooting “pillows” that take the place of soil to retain water and give the roots somewhere to grow.

The problem is that the pillows don’t hold onto water very well, so the hydroponic system keeps drying out unless it’s tended regularly. Given how much it costs to keep an astronaut on the station, time spent watering the lettuce is about as economical as hiring a brain surgeon to mow the lawn, so a team led by Howard Levine at the Kennedy Space Center is working on some upgrades for the system.

One key example is the semi-hydroponic Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) being produced by Tupperware. With over 75 years of experience working with food-grade plastics as well as injection molding and other plastic manufacturing processes, Tupperware is producing a new disposable pillow made of plastic mesh that uses capillary forces and unusual geometries to replace gravity and hold water in like a zero gravity sponge while permitting root formation.

In other words, rather than design and built the pillows itself, as it would have in the past, NASA has hired Tupperware to build them. I am willing to bet this is saving NASA both time and money.

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23 comments

  • wayne

    This sounds like NASA is paying Tupperware, to re-invent the wheel.

    Hydroponics with Stonewool® & Rockwool® Slabs 101
    https://youtu.be/SuCUA7Ftr7s
    (5:20)

  • Wayne: These slabs will not work in weightlessness. Getting water to the roots of a plant in weightlessness is far more complicated than you can imagine. I talk about this at length in Leaving Earth.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.,
    Cool– I will take a look, it’s been some time. (Not more complicated than I am capable of imagining, but granted, not my bailiwick.)

    -Can you enlighten us as to the cost of this P.O.N.D.S. “partnership?” I haven’t had a chance to look this up very deeply.

    Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/techshot/35766635690/in/photostream/

  • Wayne: Unfortunately, the article did not provide a price, and a quick bit of research has come up empty.

    I would expect this kind of work does not cost much more than a few million, at most. If anyone can track down the cost I would be interested as well.

  • wayne

    I did download some PDF files on PONDS, but haven’t explored deeper.

    Didn’t mean to imply that Rockwool for example, was readily transferrable to space, just that my knee-jerk response is to keep things as simple as is feasible. (and I only play at being A Farmer In Space, on the interweb.)

    No time to address “growing stuff in space,” right now, but a thought does occur to me; any research on plant-growth in Moon type gravity the past 50 years?
    -Did they sprout any seeds during Apollo?

    Great Topic, on many levels, from abstract to nuts-n-bolts.

    tangentially-
    Tupperware the Company, does at least a $1billion in revenue as far as I know. and….brand-new Consumer Tupperware, is outrageously priced. That is some fancy expensive plastic! (I do have a nice set myself, but it came from a garage-sale, circa 1989.) Anyone remember the colored Pyrex nesting-bowls from the 1950’s?
    –my completely tangential media-media reference, would be to “Silent Running” with Bruce Dern.

  • Wayne asked, “Any research on plant-growth in Moon type gravity the past 50 years?”

    In a word, no. To do this type of research would require a centrifuge on a space station, and none has ever been flown. For a short time, the Soviets had on Mir a very small device for spinning materials, and got results that suggested that only a very tiny amount of acceleration (as little as 1 percent) might solve a lot of problems. This has never been confirmed or followed up.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Is anyone familiar with aquaponics? For those of you that aren’t, essentially it’s a combination of aquaculture (growing fish) with hydroponics (growing plants in a water/nutrient solution). It effectively gives you a protein source and fruits and vegetables with little more than the input necessary to produce fish alone.

    Like hydroponics, aquaponics is much more water efficient than traditional farming methods using dirt. And unlike aquaculture that wastes a LOT of water and requires intensive filtration, in an aquaponics system the water is recycled and the plants are the filters keeping the fish healthy.

    I think the space savy people will immediately recognize the merits of using an aquaponic system in a Moon or Mars settlement. There is little to no water wasted, the seeds and fish eggs can be brought from earth with a minimal mass penalty and the water can be mined in-situ. I would be surprised if there haven’t been a few studies evaluating the effectiveness of an aquaponics system in a Moon/Mars settlement, but I’m not aware of any and I’m too tired to look tonight.

  • Chris

    Fish in weightlessness….(Roger Dean comes to mind)
    Any data out there?

  • Edward

    Chris:
    Skylab did a little experimentation with fish:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8Im03PgFYU (16 seconds)

  • pzatchok

    A sealed bag of hydro gel beads with a water line for adding water when needed.

    Poke holes in the side of the bag and plant the seeds you want.

    Place a few inside a larger inflated clear bag and place under a few grow lights.

    Not counting the water and lights the whole thing could fit into a Pringles chip can. And cost less then 20 bucks.

  • Chris

    Thanks Edward

  • pzatchok: Anyone who reads BtB knows that I favor simple and cheap over complex and expensive. However, I think you seriously underestimate the engineering issues here.

    If you poke a hole in your sealed water bag, you will have not have a way of retaining the water. On Earth we would put a hole near the top, with gravity forcing the water to the bottom of the bag. In weightlessness this would not happen. Furthermore, numerous studies of the properties of water in weightlessness have shown that its high surface tension causes it to clump, making it hard to get it to a plant’s roots. The roots themselves tend to grow in random directions because of the lack of gravity.

    I could go on. Space is going to be hard. Keeping it simple will certainly make it easier. Minimizing the difficulties will not.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.
    the broad topic of “Growing Stuff in Space” needs it’s own separate thread.

    –I’m dying to know, how much those high-tech Tupperware grow-modules, actually cost in real money.
    Nobody, except the Federal Government, would spend (potentially) millions of dollars, to grow a low nutrient-dense head of lettuce in Space. What— so astronauts can eat salads?

    (I do support basic-research, I do understand gravity or lack thereof, is the elephant in the module as it were, and the mechanics of plant growth need to be understood, and that the previous statement is flippant.)

    I would put forth the proposition– we need to learn how to grown plants in less-than normal Earth gravity, like the Moon for example.

    Q: Did early explorers in Ships on the oceans, grow any plants, during their voyages?

  • wodun

    If you poke a hole in a bag of water in space, would the water escape or would the surface tension keep it in place?

    IIRC, there is at least one centrifuge on the ISS but it is pretty small and another is supposed to be going up if it hasn’t already. And wasn’t a link shared here recently about roots growing toward water in space?

    It is surprising how complex some of the simplest things we take for granted here on Earth. It is also surprising that NASA hasn’t solved some of these problems yet.

  • wodun: Water would escape, in clumps, and float around the station. It would not be doing what it is supposed to do, get water to plant roots.

    And yes, I posted a story about a recent experiment on ISS that showed cucumber roots tend to grow toward water, and noted the importance of this discovery. (There is the search feature here, y’know. Not hard to use.) The experiment however did not find that roots for all plants do this.

    I repeat: Space is hard. Keeping it simple will make it easier. Minimizing the difficulty will not.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “A sealed bag of hydro gel beads with a water line for adding water when needed.

    This is exactly why we need experience performing daily tasks in space. Zero gravity makes so much work differently than we are used to. When we are in zero gravity, the waterline makes less sense than we normally thing, because the water does not settle to the bottom.

    Rocket scientists and engineers figured this out early on; they added small thrusters to liquid-fueled rockets that ignite after staging or ignite after spending time in free fall, in order to get the liquid fuel to settle to the “bottom” where the fuel feed lines are.

    Chris,
    You are welcome. As I recall, the disoriented fish eventually oriented themselves so that their “up” was toward the light source. That is probably how “up” had seemed to them when on Earth.

    wayne,
    Although I am not enthusiastic about salads, it seem to me that we should not preclude them from enjoying salads, if they choose. when I do have salad, however, I tend to prefer thousand island dressing on it, so we would need a chicken in space in order to provide the egg for the mayonnaise part of the dressing. (OK, now I am being flippant.)

    wodun asked: “If you poke a hole in a bag of water in space, would the water escape or would the surface tension keep it in place?

    I am not a real expert on water behavior,* but for this question I will play one on the internet:
    It would depend upon the size of the hole. If it is small enough, then the surface tension may do the job, but how would you know that it was the surface tension holding the water in place rather than a lack of forces that would otherwise cause the water to escape? For instance, if there were a very slight squeeze on the bag (or a small pressure or even a pressure wave), then the water would tend to squirt out, overcoming even the surface tension.

    Even if the surface tension kept the water in the bag, evaporation would eventually cause the water to leave the bag, molecule by molecule.

    On the other hand, this could be quite an interesting experiment to perform on ISS or within a cubesat. Something to ponder the next time any of you are talking to a university professor.

    * I once worked with someone who was an expert in fluid behaviors. He was there to help design a Dewar to hold helium at the triple point. In space. (It was quite a Dewar.) His next job was at Hewlett Packard to help design an ink jet printer, overcoming the problem of surface tension in order to make minuscule droplets to shoot at the page, in order to provide for high resolution quality, as I recall.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    good stuff.
    I am being flippant about “salads,” but just to illustrate that a head of lettuce for example, has very little food-energy in it, given the space & inputs required to grow it.

    Cucumbers, may apparently not require the Tupperware System-
    http://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/growing-cucumbers-in-space/

    I trend toward thinking, the most efficient method of supplying people with calories in a space-station environment, would not involve growing it. (I just do not know, I could be persuaded either way.)
    For a permanent Moon settlement, it makes perfect sense to become as self-sufficient as is economically practicable and physical space & infrastructure scale a lot easier compared to space-based habitat. And I would envision a hydroponic based system on the Moon even then. (and not all food plants readily lend themselves to hydroponics, and we apparently know little about what might grow off-planet, and under what conditions.) “Dirt-based” agriculture is only as efficient as it is with constant inputs.
    As I understand one of the problems; much like the action of gravity on a human body, we do not know what the magic minimum fraction of Earth’s gravity is sufficient to function in space long term, nor the amount we need to support industrial food production.

    Great Topic.

  • Edward

    wayne,
    Your wrote: “a head of lettuce for example, has very little food-energy in it

    I’m not a real farmer, but for this discussion I will play one on the internet:
    It is possible that lettuce and cucumbers were chosen for their robustness or ease of growth. It is probably best to learn something about growing plants in space by using plants that grow well under severe conditions, because we knew so little about how to get plant growth started. I will have to review Robert’s book Leaving Earth, but my recollection is that the Soviets used robust plants in their space station experiments, back in the 1980s and later.

    As for what will create the most calories for the input energy, I would make a guess that it is yeast, but that is only because a couple of science fiction stories that I have read took place in times when everything people ate had to be yeast, due to the high population of the Earth. The yeast would be shaped, textured, and taste like other foods, such as steak, but yeast it was. It is nice that we have not reached such a high planetary population, yet.

    Since zero gravity is such a difficult environment for us, I suspect that it will not be very many decades before someone builds a spinning space station in order to provide relief for crews and some experiments. Of course, it would have a de-spun section for zero gravity work and for experiments as well as for spacecraft docking. It could also help us to find the fractions of Earth’s gravity that are optimal or suitable for various activities, such as remaining healthy (no bone or vision problems) and growing food. Even if that food is yeast.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    You’re onto something with yeast, and I would expand that to fermentation-processes of all sorts. Highly useful for turning simple inputs into complex molecules/nutrient’s.
    –What kind of research has been done with yeast?

    Yes– I do appreciate the salad-growing is research and I assume all the chosen plants have characteristics that are more suited for research. (ala Fruit Fly’s for genetic research, which reproduce quickly.)

    I do find this an interesting topic, broadly– “people need 2500 +/- calories a day to live, where’s that coming from, in Space?”
    What is best to bring along, attempt to grow, or otherwise synthesize? And in what instance & proportion can that be carried out, and when/where off Earth, is it practical ?
    And what will people put up with as far as diet, and for how long? (Can I assume the Military has practical experience with food requirements under adversity & the impact?
    (Anyone remember those “Space Food Sticks,” from the 1970’s? SPAM & TANG, for everyone!)

    Personally, I’m totally biased for the Moon; we need to know what Earth plants will grow in Moon gravity.

    Star Trek Voyager:
    Tom Paris orders Hot Plain Tomato Soup
    https://youtu.be/qD4EVXkfe0w

  • pzatchok

    Does anyone know what hydro gels are?
    One dry pound will absorb and hold 35 gallons of water.
    The gel holds the water in place and the bag holds the gel.
    Some even come fertilized.
    They are bio degradable.
    Pick up a pound at your local gardening store and experiment a bit.
    Its like planting in jell-o. And they eat Jell-o on the space station.

    Add the water and let the gel absorb it all BEFORE you poke the seed hole in the bag. About 24 hours at most.

    Plus just like the PONDS system there is a second ‘greenhouse’ bag to hold in a micro environment and all the moisture the plant gives off naturally. So any water leaks stay inside that bag first.

    In fact the whole unused Biggalow Space module can be turned into a grow area.
    Place the growing chambers around the walls and place a grow light pole or multiple poles in the middle.
    Do all the work inside the Biggalow and nothing will get into the main station.

    I have an idea for dehumidifying the greenhouse bag also.

  • Edward

    pzatchok,
    It looks like you have an experiment to propose for an early Bigelow space station.

  • pzatchok

    I think I will try it out in the basement first. Then write it up.

    The problem with yeast is it grows and gives off Co2 and alcohol. Which in a closed environment like a space station a high volume gas like CO2 coming from a low volume source like water, sugar and yeast might not be a good idea.

    Vegemite sandwich anyone?

    Plus in a zero gravity environment were would the CO2 bubbles go? They would stay suspended inside the the water tank making a foamy sticky sludge. And it would not allow the liquid to be agitated correctly to keep the year constantly in contact with good food sources.

    But just 20% gravity would solve so many of our space troubles.

  • wayne

    pzatchok —
    Just to be clear– I’m talking about utilizing yeast off-world, to synthesize nutrients, & precursor chemicals, not to produce CO2 for plants.

    I’d also explore utilizing modified bacteria to grow essential amino-acids required for human life. Corn for example, lacks 1 (or is it 2?) essential amino-acids for human diets.
    (I am an amateur but i’m not a space-cadet.)

    And referencing tubular sized grow-rooms ala Bigelow; that is an intriguing suggestion as a platform for immediate research.
    -One thing I do know about illumination & plants however, I=L/Dsquared. Intensity = light output divided by distance squared.
    I’m not going to put a halide/sodium HID lamp, 2-3 feet from my plants, in Space I suspect I’d use LED’s with the correct spectrum, an inch away. No need to waste valuable space and the LED’s are amazingly efficient compared to halide/sodium bulbs.
    [My wife had an indoor mini herb/spice garden (soil + perlite) for many years, in the Winter months she supplemented it with 175 watts of metal halide from a small unit. I’ve seen the same light output with modern LED’s at a fraction of that wattage & excess heat.]

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