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A flower on the moon?

Paragon Space Development
Flowering plants would be enclosed in a mini-greenhouse placed on Odyssey
Moon's lunar lander, as shown in this artist's conception.

A company that has built mini-biospheres for orbiting space stations says it's ready for the next giant leap: growing flowers on the moon.

"It's all very aggressive," Taber MacCallum, chief executive officer of Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corp., said of his company's plan to send a miniature greenhouse to the lunar surface. "But it isn't fun if it isn't aggressive."

Paragon's "Lunar Oasis" would piggyback on a lunar lander currently being developed by Odyssey Moon to vie for a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Details of the partnership are to be publicized Friday during a news conference at Paragon's headquarters in Tucson, Ariz.

To win the prize, Odyssey Moon would have to get its lander/rover craft on the moon's surface by the end of 2014. Paragon is working with Odyssey Moon on the lander design and its thermal control system as well as the mini-greenhouse.

"We are thrilled to have Paragon join the team with their expertise in thermal and biological systems," Odyssey Moon's founder and chief executive officer, Bob Richards, said in a news advisory. "I am incredibly inspired by our hope to grow the first plant on another world."

Capturing the imagination
The greenhouse idea has emotional as well as scientific appeal.

"People of all ages will get excited about the idea of growing a plant on the moon," Jane Poynter, president and founder of Paragon (as well as MacCallum's wife), said in the advisory. "Imagine a bright flower on a plant in a crystal clear growth chamber on the surface of the moon, with the full Earth rising above the moonscape behind it; these are the ideas that got me interested in space."

MacCallum has been impressed in particular by how kids react to the idea. "To them, right now it's more cool than astronauts," he told me.

But the experiment isn't just kid stuff. "The first plant to grow from seed and complete its life cycle on another world will be a significant step in the expansion of life beyond the earth," Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in the advisory. "The sooner we do it, the better."

Plants already have been found to flourish in zero gravity - in fact, Paragon played a big role in plant-growth experiments on the space shuttle and Russia's Mir space station as well as on the international space station. But plants haven't yet been grown in lunar-type reduced gravity, said Volker Kern, Paragon's director of NASA human spaceflight programs.

"Scientifically, it will be very interesting to understand the effects of the moon and one-sixth gravity on plant growth," he said.

Mother Nature on another world
MacCallum knows that getting plants to grow in the Lunar Oasis will be a challenge. First of all, the greenhouse would have to survive the trip to the moon in working order - which is definitely one giant leap for the Odyssey Moon team.

Odyssey Moon
Odyssey Moon's lander makes its descent to the
lunar surface in this artist's conception.


Then Mother Nature would have to do its thing on another world, with a lot of help from the onboard life support system. The current prototype for the greenhouse is a 15-inch-high (37.5-centimeter-high) reinforced glass cylinder that's about 7 inches (18 centimeters) wide on the bottom. Seeds for a rapid-cycle type of Brassica plant - basically, mustard seeds - would be planted in Earth soil within the container.

"It's one of those 'lab-rat' plants that scientists use a lot and know very well," MacCallum explained.

The petite plants have been bred on Earth to develop yellow flowers 14 days after planting - which happens to be how long a lunar day lasts. "We're hoping to at least go to flower and set seed in the course of one lunar day," MacCallum said.

Without the mediating influence of an atmosphere, lunar surface temperatures can swing widely between day and night, from 225 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius) during the day to colder than 240 degrees below zero F (-153 degrees C) at night. "My guess is the plant is going to get so cold that it dies during the night," MacCallum said.

But wouldn't it be cool if the plant developed mustard seeds that started a whole new cycle of growth on the moon? If that happened, "we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves," MacCallum said.

Lessons in life support
Paragon's would-be lunar gardeners will have to work their way through lots of technical challenges: How do you design the greenhouse glass to block the sun's harmful rays while letting in the sunlight needed for Earth-style photosynthesis? How do you meter in the carbon dioxide and water that the plant will require, while removing the oxygen given off by the plant? "It gets complicated very quickly," MacCallum said.

NASA / Paragon
Paragon Space Development's
Autonomous Biological System
provides a sealed habitat for
aquatic plants or animals in space.


But as MacCallum said, that's part of the fun. These are the kinds of challenges he's been dealing with since the early 1990s, when he and Poynter served as resident scientists in the eco-laboratory known as Biosphere 2. The couple started up Paragon even before they left Biosphere 2, and the company collaborates with NASA as well as outside researchers on space-biology experiments.

Today, Paragon specializes in the testing and development of life support systems for outer space as well as for underwater diving. The company is part of the Lockheed Martin team building NASA's next spaceship, as well as the Oceaneering team designing NASA's next spacesuit. Paragon has also been awarded a U.S. Navy contract to start production of an advanced diving system designed specifically for use in contaminated water.

All those projects will be mentioned during Friday's news conference, with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in attendance. But the Lunar Oasis is likely to be the star of the show: Paragon plans to present a model of the greenhouse to Giffords, who is chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics.

The model was still under construction as of this week, and MacCallum said he couldn't guarantee that it'll be a realistic representation of the greenhouse eventually going to the moon. "Since we really don't know what 'realistic' is, we'll have to see," he joked.


Check out this msnbc.com gallery and this X Prize Web site for basic facts about the Google Lunar X Prize teams.