Growing In Space

Growing In Space  

By Dr. Joel Cuello, The University of Arizona and Association For Vertical Farming

While the world’s space programs were instrumental in spinning off vertical farming, today’s vertical farming industry will likely, in turn, ultimately enable NASA and other space programs to realize their future food production systems on the Moon, Mars and beyond.


As the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s first Lunar landing and moonwalk onNASA’s Apollo 11 Lunar landing and moonwalk on 20 July 1962. July 20, 1969 was observed last year, it is fitting to recall the myriad innovation spin-offs that NASA’s space program has gifted mankind. These range  from the integrated circuit to computer microchips to satellite television to cordless tools to electric vehicles to freeze-dried food to memory foam, etc. — and yes, still unbeknownst to many, vertical farming.

Space Farming

While the Apollo program itself did not initiate or develop space farming, its unprecedented success directly led NASA to establish the Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) division within its Advanced Life Support program around 1978.  The aim,  in part, was  developing the technologies and strategies necessary to grow food and regenerate resources on the Lunar surface or on Mars for future long-duration manned missions and habitation.

NASA’s Apollo 11 Lunar landing and moonwalk on 20 July 1962. Nearly two decades before NASA, however, the then Soviet Space program commenced activities beginning in 1961 toward developing its own bio-regenerative space life support system. In 1968, the Soviets first realized growing crops in their completely sealed controlled-environment system Bios-2, located in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, wherein they successfully cultivated wheat, carrots, cucumber, dill and other vegetable crops. (Bios-2 should not be confused with Biosphere 2 in Arizona which was constructed much later between 1987 and 1991.) An improved underground test facility, Bios-3, was subsequently built by the Soviets in 1972.

Fast Forward

Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s, NASA’s CELSS program made Joel Cuello NASAsignificant advances in the cultivation of a whole range of crops in closed controlled-environment systems under optimized environmental conditions of lighting, temperature, relative humidity, air flow, nutrient compositions, etc.

The foregoing advances by both NASA and the Soviet Space program paved the way for the emergence of the first commercial vertical farms (or plant factories) in the United States and Japan. General Electric’s Geniponics based in New York and Alaska, as well as General Mills’ Phytofarms of America in Illinois, were established in the 1970s and operated through the 1980s, though eventually closing down owing to economic challenges.

Vertical Farming Takes Root

Joel Cuello's NASA-sponsored project on design and demonstration of NASA’s first Hybrid Solar and Electric Lighting System It was in Japan in the 1980s, however, when the then fledgling vertical farming industry truly took root and flourished, in part, through their proactive adoption and incorporation of emerging technology innovations.

For instance, TS Farm (Q.P. Corporation) was first in employing aeroponic systems, while Cosmo Plant Co. Ltd. in 2000 became the world’s first commercial LED-based vertical farm and began producing up to 7,000 heads of lettuce per day, significantly exceeding the industry norm of 3,000 to 5,000 heads of lettuce per day in the 1990s.

Vertical farming today, of course, has gone global and, in parallel withJoel Cuello NASA advances in lighting technologies, climate control, data analytics, automation and other innovations, has correspondingly been setting new achievements in both yield and resource sustainability.

The Future

And just as the space program spun off the Vertical Farming industry, there is poetic symmetry in the very real prospects that it will be the vertical farming industry that will ultimately enable NASA, as well as other space programs, to develop and fully realize its bio-regenerative space life support systems for future Lunar and Martian human habitats.

Just as Elon Musk’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have partnered with NASA to innovate on and advance space transportation, it is highly likely that partnerships with NASA for the design and operation of its future Lunar and Martian space farms will be brokered with the likes of AeroFarmsPlentyBowery FarmingCropOne Holdings, Gotham Greens, 80 Acres Farms, BrightFarms, AEssense, Seven Steps to Heaven and/or other indoor farming companies, some of which have yet to be formed.

In the future the vertical farming industry may indeed extend its prospects from the mere terrestrial to the extraterrestrial.


Photos Captions (top to bottom):NASA’s Apollo 11 Lunar landing and moonwalk on July 20, 1962. (Photos courtesy of NASA) ;   The author’s NASA-sponsored project on design and demonstration of NASA’s first Hybrid Solar and Electric Lighting System for Bio-regenerative Space Life Support for application in future long-duration manned missions to the Moon and Mars.


Dr. Joel Cuello will be moderating the session , “Growing In Space With the Help of Government, Industry and Academia during the May 18-20, 2020 edition of Indoor Ag-Con at the Wynn Las Vegas
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