Gardening on the Moon

Frycook posted this fascinating video from the Apollo era on the BoingBoing Submitterator. The basic gist: Back in the day, NASA scientists tried exposing various crops—corn, lettuce, tobacco ... you know, the essentials—to moon dust. The plants weren't grown in the dust, exactly. Instead, it was scattered in their pots or rubbed on some of their leaves. In this study, the plants that were exposed seemed to grow faster than unexposed plants.

That's pretty interesting, so I dug around a little to find out more about these studies. Turns out, growing plants in lunar soil isn't quite as promising as the video makes it sound, but it's not a ridonculous idea, either. In 2010, scientists at the University of Florida published a review of all the Apollo-era research on this subject, which amounted to exactly three published studies. From that data, we can say that the plants weren't obviously affected in any seriously negative ways by their exposure to lunar soils—which is good—but we can't really say the plants grew better their terrestrial-only cousins, either.

In the end, and as recorded in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, there were only three published primary studies of seeds, seedlings, and plants grown in contact with lunar materials. In those three cases, small amounts of lunar material were used, and the plants were relatively large. In general, the dusting of plants or the mixing of lunar fines with other support media makes plant interaction with the lunar material a small part of the plant experience. At no point were plants actually grown in lunar samples in the way that one might imagine, with the entire root structure growing through and in constant association with a lunar soil. It is no accident that the wording of most of the titles of the studies, as well as the careful discussion within the papers, refers to growth “in contact with” lunar samples—not “in” lunar samples. With only a small portion of the roots, for example, interacting with the lunar materials, it is likely that plant responses to the lunar materials were, therefore, quite attenuated due to the lack of an extensive plant/lunar soil interface. Biophysical issues, such as root penetration of dry and variously hydrated lunar sample types, were completely unaddressed. Thus, the effects of actual growth within lunar soils were simply not a part of the plant studies of the Apollo era.

On the other hand, in 2008 scientists with the European Space Agency tried growing marigolds in a medium of crushed rock—basically the much-cheaper equivalent of growing plants in moon "soil". There's no indication that the marigolds did better than those grown in real dirt, but they did grow and they did survive (even without any added fertilizer), which could be indirect evidence in support of the Moon gardeners of the future.

Watch the video on YouTube

Read a 1969 newspaper clipping about the NASA experiments

Read the 2010 review paper—available for free, in its entirety

Read a BBC story about the 2008 marigold experiment


  1. Doesn’t hydroponics kind of make this a moot point?
    I mean it’s not like the moon could ever be terraformed to a point to grow things without a structure surrounding them.

    1. Hydroponics isn’t just water – it requires nutrient solutions with elements like magnesium, calcium, nitrate, sulfate, etc. and I think there are some things that grow better in a growth medium. Perhaps moon dirt adds some of those nutrients and could be a good growth medium too, and that way they wouldn’t have to haul cases of Botanicare and bags of Hydroton up.

      It’s good to know that the film got it wrong and that moon dust doesn’t actually make things grow better – I was already envisioning some poor Sam Bell-like shlub up there having to send bags of soil down on a regular basis.

      1. My understanding of hydroponics was that the only important rule was not to assign that chore to Dr. Smith if you were planning on eating this week.

  2. I thought I had read things about the dust being so fine that they were worried it would get in your lungs and never come out. If that’s the case, then I think it unlikely we’ll be growing anything in lunar soil unless it’s not a tuber, despite Heinlein’s beautiful The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

    Hydroponics is the answer. Mine the Moon for ice and all you’ll need to bring are the necessary nutrient addditions, plus the right light.

    1.  I can’t help feeling there must be alternative inhospitable places full of crappy rocks that are slightly more accessible than the moon.  Australia perhaps?

      1. Or the Gobi desert? Or Antarctica? Or the Marianas Trench?  Basically anywhere on this planet is more accessible than the moon, and MUCH cheaper to ship bulk items (we’re talking about mining, right?).

        1. I think the point of farming on the Moon is to feed people who need/want to be on the Moon, not because it’s cheaper or better to bring food back from the Moon.

          1. Historically, colonization has only succeeded when there was an economic rationale.  There may be a handful of billionaire space tourists who will be willing to spring for a trip to the moon, but until someone figures out an economic justification for a colony (mining is the usual one, but please), humans are not going to settle there.

  3. I would expect that the increased growth of plants grown with a sprinkling of moon dust is because the lunar dust basically acts as an iron supplement and oxidizes the plant’s soil, basically turning the ammonia in the soil into fertilizer (nitrites)

  4. “but they did grow and they did survive (even without any added fertilizer)”
    … right up until Monsanto buys the data.

  5. Maggie, I think you missed a study, namely:

    1. Indeed. Every time I read ‘lunar soil’ my inner pedologist has an urge to scream ‘has it undergone three distinct soil/water/gravity processes? Well? Has it?’

  6. Well, this is why we need to go back.  Because clearly we need more moon dirt to experiment with.

    1.  No, it’s Henry Rollins. That’s a common mistake, trick of the light and such.

      It’s been common knowledge for many years that Henry Rollins is a Cylon.

  7. Moon tobacco? What a great idea for a story! Turn the Moon into the Earth’s smoking area.

  8. There’s no indication that the marigolds did better than those grown in real dirt, but they did grow and they did survive (even without any added fertilizer)

    They did far worse, in fact- until bacteria were added. And as almost all plants grow better with symbiotic fungi, choice of microflora could be as important as availability of chemical nutrients.

  9. Moon material isn’t magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on things to make them awesome?? Shocking.

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