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NASA Astronaut Life Support Research Helps Earth Families Grow Food

Person trimming plants.
Bart Womack, founder and CEO of Eden Grow Systems, trims a plant in one of the company’s grow towers. Credits: Eden Grow Systems Inc.

Bart Womack likes to be prepared, and he has found no better resource than NASA. After all, an agency preparing for survival in the frozen void of space is ready for anything.

NASA has worked for decades to develop a life-support system that functions as a self-replenishing ecology. At the heart of this work was the Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) program, which ran for about 25 years, between the late 1970s and early 2000s, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It relied especially on plants, which recycle waste into food and oxygen.

The project’s results, published in hundreds of papers over the years, have given rise to the controlled environment agriculture movement. But Womack wanted to apply the findings to something closer to NASA’s goals – a closed-loop, self-sustaining life-support system that would enable self-reliance for families, homesteaders, and communities, especially in the event of disaster.

Scientist in a lab setting with 3 other scientists in the background.
NASA plant scientist Gary Stutte holds two plant experiment modules that flew on the last space shuttle mission in 2011. After retiring, Stutte joined Eden Grow Systems as director of research and development. Credits: NASA

He founded Houston-based Eden Grow Systems Inc. in 2017 and has since recruited Kennedy’s former plant research director, Gary Stutte, as the company’s director of research and development.

NASA CELSS scientists experimented with basic technology like LED grow lights, hydroponic and aeroponic growing techniques, and “aquaponics” that would incorporate fish into the system. They also worked out fine details, identifying the best indoor crops and the ideal growing conditions for each and combining them to maximize growth and nutritional value while using minimal energy and recycling resources.

The payoff was substantial, Stutte said. “We were producing yields that far exceeded what was considered feasible.”

CELSS also featured automated, user-friendly systems intended for busy astronauts. This emphasis on ease of use and precise “recipes” of lighting, temperature, and nutrients for various crops is central to Eden Grow Systems’ approach.

“The biggest secret in the sauce is specific grow profiles for specific plants, which are controlled through our app,” said Womack.

The company’s ultimate goal, the Genesis System, will be an enclosed habitat that runs on energy from wind, sunlight, and biogas and can indefinitely support a family of four. First, though, the company is marketing parts of the system as they mature. Grow boxes for hobbyists are in the works. And Eden’s first products, six-foot towers that can grow various crops and breed fish or shrimp, started shipping in fall of 2021.

The company hopes to start shipping Genesis System habitats at the end of 2022. The U.S. Air Force has expressed interest in uses at military bases. Womack noted that the habitats would be useful at remote outposts or for disaster or famine response, not to mention space applications (he hopes NASA will one day be a customer).

Two researchers inspecting plants.
NASA researchers Neil Yorio and Lisa Ruffe inspect lettuce inside NASA’s Biomass Production Chamber at Kennedy Space Center in 1991. For more than 20 years, NASA used the chamber to run experiments on crop growth in support of the Controlled Ecological Life Support System program. Credits: NASA
Person looking over plants under grow lights.
Eden Grow Systems technician Eli Long checks on plants in one of the company’s grow towers. Credits: NASA

“I see us not as a next-generation farming company but as a life-support company,” Womack said. “My vision is that every home on Earth has a life-support system.”

NASA has a long history of transferring technology to the private sector. The agency’s Spinoff publication profiles NASA technologies that have transformed into commercial products and services, demonstrating the broader benefits of America’s investment in its space program. Spinoff is a publication of the Technology Transfer program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).

For more information on how NASA brings space technology down to Earth, visit:

By Mike DiCicco
NASA’s Spinoff Publication