S4 E5: The Space Gardener

In episode five, Alok Jha talks to NASA astrobotanist Jess Bunchek about growing vegetables in Antarctica – and outer space.

S4 E5: The Space Gardener

In episode five, Alok Jha talks to NASA astrobotanist Jess Bunchek about growing vegetables in Antarctica – and outer space.

S4 E5: The Space Gardener

In episode five, Alok Jha talks to NASA astrobotanist Jess Bunchek about growing vegetables in Antarctica – and outer space.

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S4 E5: The Space Gardener Jess Bunchek

Alok Jha: Let me take you on a journey. To the coldest place on earth, and its last and greatest wilderness. On a voyage to Antarctica…

Hello and welcome back to A Voyage to Antarctica, brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I’m your host Alok Jha.

This week, my guest is an ‘astro-botanist’ from NASA—Jess Bunchek. Jess started as a botanist and agronomist and, after completing her masters, she worked as an astro-botanist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, she researched the production of crops and supported “Veggie” – a vegetable production chamber on the International Space Station.

While at NASA, she proposed a new collaboration with Germany's space agency, on the EDEN ISS greenhouse project in Antarctica. For this collaboration, Jess overwintered for 14 months at Germany's Neumayer Station III in Antarctica.

Jess is now pursuing her PhD in Space Systems Engineering at the University of Bremen, Germany.


Alok Jha: So I've heard you described Jess as an astro botanist, which is an intriguing title. I'm sure there's not many of them around. But for you, what came first? Was it the astro or the botany?

Jess Bunchek: For me, the botany came first

I was very determined that I wanted to be a scientist. I think science is a beautiful thing because we can learn more about everything around us by looking at data and with conducting research and this is a way that we can interpret all of the things that we are learning about or that we don't yet know into a language or into a way that we can interpret it.

And so when I went to university, I was very curious to study botany in particular. I was very set on that. And then I wanted to continue to do research, which means graduate school, of course. And so from there, I went and was working on a master's in agronomy.

So agronomy is the study of cropping systems and I was working with invasive species and with weedy plant species and trying to think of more sustainable, holistic ways that we can tackle this problem that can threaten not only our food supply, but also the environment in which our crops are growing.

Alok Jha: So all of that sounds incredibly earth based and requiring of, you know, soils and water and all of the normal things you might expect for plants. I mean, there's nothing abnormal about that. So how is it that you ended up working for NASA?

Jess Bunchek: It is a little bit different. Yes, that a botanist will go and work for NASA. So the story, I believe, is just this interest in space that I have had also since my childhood that and the plans have been developed in parallel with one another. As I started to near the end of my masters, of course, then I have to decide what am I going to do after grad school?

And then I started to wonder, is this a time that NASA is doing plant research in space and turns out this is the time that they were. and fortunately, I came across an internship opportunity at NASA and applied. With all of my focus and with as much energy as I could give that application, and fortunately, I was awarded with one of the internships and that began my adventure with NASA.

Alok Jha: So can I just clarify this then? So you had a parallel interest in botany and space. I mean, who doesn't? As a kid, you know, plenty of people are interested in space, but then leave it behind as you grow up and start to do other things. But you decided that you were kind of interested in seeing if these things crossed.

Jess Bunchek: I can remember a very particular moment where space became prominent in my life. I grew up in the state of Indiana, which has produced many astronauts. And the university where I did my bachelor's degree has had I think about 25 or 26 astronauts at this point, so I grew up in this culture where space was very much around and particularly this love of the astronauts and engineering that goes into making these missions possible.

But when I was very young, then this was when the Mercury 7 Liberty Bell had been recovered from the ocean floor from Gus Grissom's mission, where it had had a hatch break inappropriately, and this capsule had sunk and they had recovered this and this was in 1999 and it was big news and this capsule had come to the state of Indiana on a national tour and of course we had to go see it because it was not that far and I remember seeing this capsule and was excited about the adventure that Gus Grissom had gone through.

Of course, you know, it's quite harrowing that there was this anomaly with the capsule, and fortunately he did escape, and then this capsule sank. But the idea of someone going to space, even as a child, was not very scary to me. And I think also that's how some of the other things I've gotten to do as an adult. I think for other people, they may be scary, but for me, they just seem kind of fun.

Alok Jha: I've heard you described as a ‘pseudonaut’. Tell me what that is.

Jess Bunchek: A pseudonaut is an individual who works in place of what an astronaut would do in space. When we are preparing our experiments to fly, or when we are running a ground control version of that experiment then we have to have somebody who steps in and runs the procedures in place of what the astronaut would do

For our research with plants in particular with the veggie system on the ISS, then I have had the opportunity to be the pseudonaut. So I have to look at the experiments as if the astronauts would wear and think about all of the constraints that would be happening around me and how much time would be needed to complete this particular procedure and are there other things that we have to consider? So maybe we need to rewrite how we are writing our procedures to make it clear for our crew members.

Alok Jha: And so Jess, tell me when you first became interested in Antarctica as a place to do your research.

Jess Bunchek: I think like my interest in space, I can pinpoint the first time I have thought about Antarctica as a place I wanted to work down to a specific memory and I was doing my bachelor's and a few of us friends had gone out for the evening and one of the individuals in our group was talking about a holiday that he had recently taken with his family and they had gone to Antarctica and he was showing us these photos.

And in my head, I thought, well, this seems great. I really want to go. But when I go, I want to actually have the chance to live there and to experience it more authentically than what just tourists would be able to do. I want to stay there longer and really get into the technical side of living there.

Alok Jha: Tell me about that expedition. Was it something that you had to organize yourself or was it organized? as part of a larger project.

Jess Bunchek: So every country that has research happening in Antarctica will coordinate the research on your behalf.

These countries have to follow the international laws of the Antarctic Treaty and because they are coordinating everything, this also ensures that all the decisions are being done under the environmental protections of the Antarctic treaty. It's also incredibly challenging to plan logistics to go to Antarctica because it is so remote and far away and so extreme from everything.

Because I went to the German research station. All of our logistics were handled by the Alfred Wegener Institute, which is the institution here in Germany that coordinates polar and marine research.

So, from NASA side, I had to get in touch with the out for bigger Institute or Avi. And then from there we were able to start to plan how to get there.

Alok Jha: Just tell me a bit about the preparation. Did you have to go to certain places in the world to prepare for the cold and other things or did you just go straight there?

Jess Bunchek: The preparation for Neumar station in particular might arguably be the most intensive any of the overwintering stations. We have only 10 people on our overwintering team. And so we train for 5 months and we also live together during this time and the institute wants to make very sure that we are going to get along because including the preparation period and our overwintering we're going to live with each other every day for about a year and a half. We go through everything from conflict management training and crisis management training to learning about what we will do in our individual jobs as to why we have been selected for these positions. The bigger things that we do will include firefighting training since we will be our own firefighting team.

So we do that with the German Navy, and we get trained on ships of how to fight fires. And then we also traveled to the Alps where we did about a week and a half of glacier training and survival training. It's a very interesting process, but it's very intense and very long.

Alok Jha: It sounds intense. I wonder in the sort of conflict resolution training, did you learn something about yourself in the way that you handle these things? Did you learn tips that you can share with us?

Jess Bunchek: Absolutely. So we have to become comfortable with expressing how we come across as stressed so that others can pick up on that and how we are in conflict. So what kind of characteristics do we have? And we learn that about all of the others. So it's interesting to have to be inflective in these particular moments.

Alok Jha: And did you get good at that? Did you get good at sort of showing your stress or picking up on other people's and helping them?

Jess Bunchek: I did, but it is also incredibly interesting that when you are living with the same people and only the same people for so long how you can pick up on all the subtle differences of their personalities and their current moods in a way that is, I haven't had that with anybody else.

You can tell from their footsteps who's walking by and maybe if they're in a hurry, or if they're a little bit upset about something and something quite so subtle that would usually go overlooked. Now, this was a very telltale sign. So that also helps that we can be more proactive about either giving somebody space or checking in with them to see if they're doing okay.


Alok Jha: So on the expedition itself, you went to work at the Neumeier 3 station, as you said. And in particular, there was the Eden ISS experiment. I just wonder if you can tell me a bit about that. What is it and what did you do with it?

Jess Bunchek: Eden ISS was a greenhouse container that was located outside of the Neumeier station. So in particular, it was. 400 meters away, and this was a container project from the German Aerospace Center. So from DLR.

Because I was coming from NASA, I was able to propose ways that NASA could integrate its own areas of research so that the two agencies could complement each other as they're working towards the shared goal of producing greenhouses that could go on to moon or Mars and coming up with innovative technologies that can also further how we are growing food here on earth. When I was in the container, then I had two main goals. The first was, of course, to grow fresh produce for us as overwinters. We didn't have any plants outside and because this is during the overwintering, no ships, no resupplies can come.

So, this was our only source of fresh produce for our 14 month overwintering. And then the other side is conducting numerous areas of data collection to reach our scientific goals.

Alok Jha: So Jess describe for me what it was like when you were on your expedition. What was a typical day like? Was there hardship amongst all the sort of beauty and other things you were seeing?

Jess Bunchek: The day to day definitely changed, but it was mostly dependent on what kind of weather that we were having. And so I had to be flexible to whatever was going to be happening outside.

Most of the days I would make it out to the greenhouse. It was only if we were having a storm that was basically a hurricane that it was a little bit too strong to go out and venture that day. But we start by making sure that we are clothed properly for the weather. And you never leave the station without having your radio with you so that you're always connected with the people because – yeah, when you're working inside of your greenhouse container, you're all alone, so you have to make sure that you can stay connected in case something does happen and either people have to get to you or you have to get back.

But it was always a beautiful thing to be outside. No matter the weather and then to arrive at the greenhouse and then to come into this environment that was just teeming with life and you could smell how wonderful everything was. You could hear all of the pumps and all of the other machines that were working and see all the different lights and the colors, whether we had flowers, fruit or just the lights from the LEDs and you get this sensory overload and it's both inside and outside environments.

And so each day was a little bit different with regards to the tasks I had to do, but it was always really enjoyable. There were challenges too, of course, but in hindsight, they were great learning experiences.

Alok Jha: Tell me a bit more about the technology itself. How was the Eden ISS project set up in Antarctica? How did you grow fruits and vegetables? And actually, which ones, which fruits and veg were you growing?

Jess Bunchek: We work with what are called aeroponic trays.

So, in Antarctica, you cannot bring any soil. This is a way to protect the environment. And we also would think that in space, we would go with a type of system for growing our plants that does not rely on soil.

So, we have these aeroponic systems. What they do is they mist nutrient solution at the roots and your entire root system of your plant is in an enclosed container so that this mist and this good humidity will stay inside and we have artificial lighting using led lighting, which is the standard in greenhouse systems.

And we have half of our container for growing the plants. We had 12 and a half square meters of cultivation area and then the other half of this greenhouse container is used for all of the different systems that are needed to support growing plants when you're in such an extreme environment. So your temperature control, your nutrient system, your air management system, and everything that keeps us also connected wifi back to the station. It's all in this one enclosed space.

Alok Jha: It's a very sophisticated way of growing plants, isn't it?

Jess Bunchek: Yes, it is.

Alok Jha: I guess the reason for it is to understand how you might grow plants outside Earth, right?

So let's think about the space station itself, the ISS, which is in the name of the Eden ISS project. Are there crops and plants being grown in space on that space station?

Jess Bunchek: Yes. So the International Space Station has a couple of permanent structures, we can say that are their plant growth system. So there's the Veggie vegetable production system, which is the one that I supported while at NASA and then the advanced plant habitat and veggie is more manually operated so it has greater crew interaction and the advanced plant habitat is more automatically operated so we can practice more remote operations from the ground. And a lot of the crops that have been grown in space, we also wanted to test those in Eden ISS so that we can test these plants we are familiar with growing in a brand new environment.

Alok Jha: It must be quite hard to grow plants in space because, you know, with very little gravity, how does water know where to flow? I mean, we know that it doesn't flow properly up there. So how do you grow plants?

Jess Bunchek: Yeah, for growing plants in space, water is definitely the biggest challenge that we have because of the fluid dynamics in microgravity.

We have particular systems that we will use in space that will help to ensure that the water is being evenly distributed throughout that root zone. But there are, of course, always new technologies that are being developed to look at other ways in which the plants could grow.

We are in particular interested in the effects of microgravity in terms of how the crew will be affected by having plants there. So, a lot of the astronauts will have an effect called fluid shifts, because without having the R1G that we have here on earth. The body will overcompensate with its circulation.

And now it will have too much fluid going up into the head. And a lot of astronauts will have a loss of smell or loss of taste or at least decrease similar to having a head cold. And so we have to give them flavorful food. And that's one of the things that we look at is if we have a particular plant that is growing in space, then how delicious is it? Because we want to give them something that's really, really tasty.

And that's something we have looked at with EDEN ISS as well is how is the crew benefiting from growing this? Because we can grow things sustainably and we can grow them in really interesting looking hardware. But we have to always think about our end product, that our crew has to be happy with what we're doing. That is the really big goal of what we're trying to accomplish.

Alok Jha: That's the biggest question here, isn't it? Which is how does all this stuff taste? I mean, the fruit and veg grown in Antarctica, what does that taste like?

Jess Bunchek: I might be a bit biased but the plants tasted absolutely amazing. Part of it definitely comes from growing everything right there. We can harvest and then within an hour, we're eating dinner and enjoying everything that anyone who does gardening at home can attest to just how great having fresh produce available can be, but also our system is really optimized so that we are trying to make sure the plants are as happy as possible. And because we have been able to do that, then the plants in particular, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the kohlrabi, peppers, all of it actually has just been more flavorful than I could have expected. And that also makes the work really fun to do. And we can enjoy that.

Alok Jha: I'm curious. What were the recipes you made? Is there a favorite that you had?

Jess Bunchek: We had a variety of things, and we also had a chef as one of our ten crew mates, and so then I could also let him be creative with what we were doing.

One of the challenges that we did have was sometimes having too much produce to go through in a time before it would go bad, so he would make pesto or sometimes make soup out of the herbs that we had. My personal favorite though, was that we had a lot of chili peppers. What do you do with a lot of chili peppers?

So we actually made up this pepper chutney with our chili peppers, and then we could preserve this for longer and open up a jar. And this was great, but also the flavor and the diversity in which we could use that on all of our different meals was just fantastic.

Alok Jha: And what about the crops grown on the space station? What do you know about how good they taste? Because there's going to be some other issues there in terms of like how good you can actually make them, surely?

Jess Bunchek: Absolutely. Yes. One of the other studies that we have done has looked at how different lighting can affect a variety of the parameters that come with our plants. And we have found with this study that sometimes the plants actually taste better in microgravity than they do here on the ground, but it is a question of we're still learning why could that be? So is there a physiological effect that is causing this? Or is it strictly psychological? or a mixture of the two?

Alok Jha: I wonder, in terms of the psychological aspect of this as well, is there a benefit for astronauts and others to be tending to plants and growing them and having sort of control over the kinds of things that they've got whilst they're far away from home?

Jess Bunchek: We're still in the early phases of researching this particular question, but the results we have seen have shown that yes, it is beneficial to have the plants there.

Knowing that we can connect well with plants, that's not necessarily a new phenomenon as humans, but finding ways that we can quantify this effect is something that we are still trying to explore. We have seen, whether that's in spaceflight or in Antarctica, that the crew members do enjoy having the fresh produce available.

We're also interested in Antarctica too to look at the environmental effects. So we have things like polar night or polar day or in space right now, astronauts on the I.S.S. they have a sunset and a sunrise – they go through that every 90 minutes. So when you're in such a constantly extreme changing environment then how can plants be another constant that the astronauts can anchor to psychologically to help better indicate time passing?

Alok Jha: Are there other sort of earthly benefits to the kinds of research you're doing? So we've talked about how you have to understand the plant physiology and make sure that you're looking for ways to grow these sorts of crops in Antarctica or in Space, but there must be things you learn about plant physiology that can be applied elsewhere on Earth too.

Jess Bunchek: Absolutely. We learn a lot about plant stresses, particularly in a space environment. So, we learn how to grow plants in greenhouses or in vertical farms with greater resiliency. We're also creating better ways of monitoring the health of the plants. So this can help us with remote monitoring and to give us better insight into the health of the plants so that we can also troubleshoot any issues earlier on. And one of the ways that we can also benefit from this is not just going to be in our standard greenhouses or vertical farms, but also in the places that have been identified as lacking in nutritious food.

So, these are things that are called food deserts, and these can be in urban environments. These can be in communities that are poor, and they may not have the infrastructure. They can also be in places where they're experiencing humanitarian crises. So we are wondering how, when working with these really compact containers and with these challenges that we have in space or Antarctica, how can we also develop really usable systems that can be used and also really challenging environments here on Earth.


Camilla Nichol: Hello, I'm Camilla Nichol, Chief Executive of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

As a charity, we work to preserve and protect Antarctica's unique heritage – from the wreck of Shackleton’s Endurance and the historic huts of the early pioneers, to the amazing discoveries in climate science. Our mission is to inspire more people to discover, value and protect this precious wilderness.

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Thank you - enjoy the rest of the show.


Alok Jha: When you went there, were you aware of the history of plant biology in Antarctica and the greenhouses that have been built already there in the past?

Jess Bunchek: I was slightly aware, but admittedly this was something that I learned literally on the way. I had to be aware, at least, because before the project, I was of course looking at the United States stations coming from the US and they have had research greenhouses or they may currently have them, but what about everything else that has been done there? And so actually, while we were on the ship on the way to Antarctica, then I was reading through literature to try and find out what else had been there and turns out a lot of stations have either had greenhouses or similar kind of plant production facilities in the past, or they currently do.

Alok Jha: And of course the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust also look after a whole bunch of sites where there've been attempts to grow plants, so places like Port Lockroy, Stonington,and also Trepassey House, which contained all sorts of greenhouses and projects to grow plants.

There's one quote that I think that's worth pointing out, which I think it was Ted Bingham who reported that the speed of growth during the summer of the plants was remarkable.

“Pansies did well, gave a prolonged and delightful show. Lettuce, radish, cress, they all grew rampantly”, he writes. There's things like carrots, cabbages, spring onions, all of those things.

And also there was the sense that tending to and admiring these flowers essentially was good for the general mental health of all the people down there, because it must have been a difficult existence down there. I mean, it's still a difficult existence now, but even more so a hundred years ago. I just wonder are you going to go back to Antarctica at any point? Have you got plans to do that?

Jess Bunchek: At this point in time, no, I don't have anything funded and lined up, but I do really hope to go back. I enjoyed it so much. Both from a research standpoint and just from a personal adventure that I can't imagine myself not trying to go back again.

Alok Jha: What would you do next, do you think? What kinds of questions have you got left that you would like to answer on your next expedition?

Jess Bunchek: Well, of course, I'm interested in seeing another part of Antarctica. It's very diverse. A lot of people probably think it's all the same. It's just white everywhere. But actually, it is quite a diverse continent. But if we're talking about from research, then it would be wonderful to go back and this time, put a greenhouse inside of the Neumayer station. So this would be able to look at our questions in a brand new way that when we have a greenhouse that is in better proximity to the crew, how does that further contribute to their well being?

So, right now, with Eden ISS being concluded in the greenhouse is back here in Germany, then right now, the overwinters don't have an Eden ISS of their own to grow their own crops. So how do we try and give them that possibility once again?

Alok Jha: Give me your vision then. So, you know, your research is trying to work out how to grow plants as well as possible in extreme environments. You know, for a mission to Mars in the future, what's your sort of vision for the kinds of plants that are growing on the ship and on the planet itself when people get there?

Jess Bunchek: On the vehicles themselves – so the spacecrafts – we would envision smaller, shorter growing crops. So things like microgreens or lettuces or our mustard green similar to things that we have grown on the I.S.S. and these are again quick-growing. But we also know that they are nutrient-dense crops and they can be picked and eaten without having to be cooked or prepared in any particular way.

So this would be ideal. And then when we actually get to the planet, then there are some different models that have been proposed, but a lot of them look at scaling up production as time goes on. So, again, starting with something small, something quick, so you get that benefit of the harvest much quicker and then you're growing things that take longer time.

So you have your peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and then we would start to work into our staple crops, so things like potatoes. Yes, potatoes on Mars. That always comes up as a question and a theme.

Alok Jha: Because you have to have potatoes.

Jess Bunchek: You have to, yes.

Alok Jha: What kind of life would it be without them?

Jess Bunchek: Exactly what kind of Martian adventure would it be without potatoes?

Alok Jha: Jess, do you have any plans to go into space yourself at any point?

Jess Bunchek: That has also been a dream since I was quite young. But at this point in time, no, you know, I'm not part of any astronaut core and I'm working on my doctorate degree. Maybe it'll happen one day in the future. Of course, that would be quite the adventure. But until then, I'm just going to keep finding adventures here on earth to do.

Alok Jha: Before we finish, let me ask you one final question. Why does Antarctica matter to you?

Jess Bunchek: It's a great question. So Antarctica is a place of extremes. You have polar night with the endless darkness and polar day with the endless sunlight for months on end. And you can have the calmest of days where you can sit outside and experience true quiet. What that actually is the absence of noise. And then the next day you can have this blizzard that comes through and is the most violent storm that you've seen.

It's such an extreme place. And amongst all of the beauty and the reality is this realisation that it can and it will kill you if you are underprepared, if you make a dumb decision, if you have a stroke of bad luck. And so you have to learn how to respect that the environment, although incredibly beautiful, is in charge and more powerful than you. And that also contributes to why you learn to love that place so much.

You know, I've been asked countless times what the hardest part about overwintering was and it wasn't being there. It's actually the time of coming back to civilization when it's over because everything is too much and it's everything too much all at once. And I've reintegrated, of course, into society, but there are things that I learned during the overwintering that I hope I'll never forget.

And that mostly has to deal with looking at situations. So, I definitely stop and slow down and enjoy all the little moments more and connect more authentically with people and care a little bit less about things like social media or the latest trends. And whenever I get into a stressful situation, or things seem to be a bit overwhelming. I ask myself the same thing that I did in Antarctica. Am I or someone else going to die in this situation or lose a body part? And then no, well, then we'll be okay. We'll figure it out and we'll just, one day at a time and just continue to enjoy the beauty around us, even back here in civilisation. So Antarctica taught me that and I'm very thankful.

Alok Jha: Jess, it's been really a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Jess Bunchek: Thank you very much for having me.

Alok Jha: Thank you for listening. A Voyage to Antarctica is brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, and made possible by support from Hurtigruten Expeditions.

To find out more about our guests and how you can support the Trust, please head to our website at www.ukaht.org, or find us on social media. If you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to follow and rate us, wherever you get your podcasts. It makes a huge difference to us.

Next time, author Katherine MacInnes will take us through the story of the race for the South Pole from the perspective of the women whose lives would be forever changed by it – the wives and mothers that Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his expedition team left behind.

A Voyage to Antarctica was presented by me, Alok Jha. Theme music is by Alec Hewes, and Editing and Additional Music is by James Stickland. The show is Produced by Jessica Norman.

See you next time.