By Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker, 45th Space Wing Public Affairs / Published September 29, 2019
And just like the case would be on Mars, the food choices on Ascension are very limited and depend completely on what supplies are flown to the island.
“If you’ve ever been to Ascension Island, or even looked at photos online, the island doesn’t differ much from Mars,” Cathy Little, Ascension Island Auxiliary Airfield agricultural specialist said.
Supplies, including food, are flown to the island because Ascension’s water cycle, soil and topography make it very difficult for anything to grow on the island – what does grow, you cannot or would not want to eat, until recently.
Introducing Ascension Island’s own personal ‘garden’, the hydroponics laboratory.
Hydroponics, or the process of growing plants in sand, gravel or liquid instead of soil, can be seen in the movie “The Martian.” Though it seems like something only a screenwriter could come up with, the agricultural team on Ascension Island has taken the idea and run with it.
“The hydroponics lab isn’t a laboratory in the traditional sense,” Little said. “Our facility is an 8,721 square foot greenhouse that has two vine crop bays and one leaf crop bay.”
In the greenhouse, the team on Ascension uses two different systems to grow fresh produce on the volcanic island. For vining crops, like tomatoes and peppers, they use a nutrient injection system, bucket system and Perlite, which is a naturally occurring volcanic glass that has a relatively high water content. For leafy crops, like lettuce and herbs, they use a nutrient film technique, where a very shallow stream of nutrient-filled water is re-circulated past the bare roots of the plants.
Though the lab has grown over the years, hydroponics is not new to Ascension Island.
“During World War II, the shipping of fresh vegetables overseas was not practical and remote islands where troops were stationed were not a place where they could be grown in the soil,” said Rick Simmons, hydroponics expert, in a 2008 article. “In 1945, the U.S. Air Force built one of the first large hydroponic farms on Ascension Island, using crushed volcanic rock as a growing medium.”
“Growing conditions haven’t changed since World War II; therefore, the need for hydroponics still exists,” Little said. “Just as it was in 1945, shipping fresh vegetables to a remote island is not cost effective and with the lack of arable soil on the island, we face the same dilemma as our forebears—how to reduce costs and meet the nutritional needs of the troops and contractor personnel stationed here.”
With the revitalization of the hydroponics lab, Little thinks a shift could be on the horizon for Ascension Island.
“In addition to having a virtually limitless supply of fresh produce and reducing the cost of transportation, morale is greatly improved knowing that produce, picked that very day, is awaiting everyone in the base dining hall,” Little said. “Hydroponics allows us to meet demands, reduce costs and provide nutritional value for our personnel.”
As the team continues to experiment with different crops, they hope to expand the size of the lab and the list of what they’re able to grow.
“If we were to operate at a full greenhouse capacity, we could produce enough fresh produce to feed the entire population of Ascension Island,” Little said. “That’s about 700 people.”
For the 45th Space Wing’s Ascension Island Auxiliary Airfield, neither the sky, nor Mars, is the limit.