The first commercial plant growth experiment on the International Space
Station is sponsored by a NASA Commercial Space Center – the Wisconsin
Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison – and by Space Explorers Inc., a commercial educational
products company in Green Bay, Wis.

This week, the Space Station crew activated the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURET
experiment and watered seeds to initiate growth of the Arabidopsis plants –
members of the Brassica plant family that includes species such as cabbage
and radishes. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURET plant growth experiment was
designed and built at the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and
Robotics, also known as WCSAR, and was launched into orbit April 19 by the
Space Shuttle Endeavour on the STS-100 mission.

The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURET consists of two units, a plant growth chamber and
a support system unit that provides temperature control and other features
for the growth chamber. Before launch, the support system unit was
installed in Space Station EXPRESS Rack 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in
Fla. The Wisconsin team planted seeds inside the growth chamber, and it was
installed in the Shuttle middeck. Before Endeavour undocked to come home,
the Space Station Expedition Two crew moved the EXPRESS Rack into the Space
Station. Later, they transferred the growth unit from the Shuttle middeck to
the Destiny laboratory module and placed it in the EXPRESS Rack.

“We are pleased to have Space Explorers as our partner on our first Space
Station experiment,” said Dr. Weijia Zhou, the director of the Wisconsin
Center for Space Automation and Robotics. “This initial experiment will not
only test the functionality and robustness of technologies used in the new
plant growth experiment hardware, but it will also provide us with valuable
data to help us develop future space-based experiments.”

The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics is one of 11 NASA
Commercial Space Centers managed by NASA’s Space Product Development Program
at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. This center
specializes in agriculture and biotechnology related research and business,
and the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURET experiment hardware will allow companies to
conduct long-term plant research on the Space Station for the first time.
Starting with this experiment on Space Station Expedition Two, industry will
be able to grow plants in space over an entire life cycle – from seeds to
plants that produce more seeds.

The Space Station provides an ideal laboratory for growing plants and
studying the influence of gravity on the plant growth through various
developmental phases. This is particularly important for studying the way a
plant’s traits, such as disease resistance and nutrition, are determined

While the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURET experiment is on the Station, scientists
will monitor it from a new, remote Mission Operations Center at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. They will be able watch the plants grow via
video sent to them daily from the Space Station, and they can talk to the
crew and send commands to the experiment from their remote center through
NASA’s Payload Operations Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala.

The plant growth unit will remain on board the Station until the end of
Expedition Two, at the end of July, when Space Shuttle Discovery will return
the growth unit containing the plants to Earth for analysis by scientists. A
second growth unit with another experiment will be delivered to the Space
Station later during Expedition Four, Space Station Flight UF1.

The ASTROCULTURET plant growth chamber, a precursor to the ADVANCED
ASTROCULTURET, has flown on six Space Shuttle missions and on a
long-duration Shuttle/Mir mission, growing plants such as wheat, mustard and

Space Explorers Inc., the commercial partner for this Wisconsin Center for
Space Automation and Robotics investigation, specializes in producing
Internet-based, space education programs. It created the “Orbital
Laboratory” program – a Web-based educational program that allows students
to conduct a ground-based experiment and compare those results to the
experiment on the International Space Station. While doing the experiment,
students will learn about the lifecycle and reproduction of plants and about

“Students can read a textbook describing the lifecycle of a plant, and think
it is no big deal, ” said Eric Brunsell, one of the principal investigators
for the project and director of education programs at Space Explorers Inc.
“But when the students can watch a plant grow through different lifecycles
and know a similar experiment is taking place on the Space Station, it adds
a unique dimension of excitement to the experiment.”

Space Explorers Inc. has developed curriculum materials for the experiment
and provided it to schools. Using the software program, students can compare
data through an online student experiment database. After the plant
experiment is finished on the Space Station, students can use actual data
from the experiment to recreate the experiment in a virtual environment.

The other two commercial experiments slated for Space Station Expedition
Two are exploring the fast-growing field of biotechnology. A Colorado
experiment examines why antibiotic production by microbes is enhanced in
microgravity. An Alabama experiment is crystallizing more than 1,000
biological solutions.

“Industry investment in space remains high,” said Mark Nall, manager of NASA
‘s Space Product Development Program at the Marshall Center. “We assist
companies developing experiments and help them explore how space research
can contribute to the growth of their businesses.”

Most of the NASA Commercial Space Centers are located on university campuses
and work closely with other academic and government research institutions.
The centers have agreements with almost 200 firms, including Bristol-Myers
Squibb, ALCOA, Amgen, DuPont, Eli Lily and Company, Space Explorers Inc.,
Monsanto Company and Polaroid.

Industry funds and participates actively in the research, pays for a portion
of launch costs, and brings resulting products or services to market.
Because a company pays for the research, it has the opportunity to
commercialize products that may be developed as a result of the research.

“This is just the beginning for us,” said Zhou. “We look forward to
conducting a variety of future experiments with many different commercial

Commercial activity through centers, such as the Wisconsin Center for Space
Automation and Robotics, has resulted in development of numerous new
technologies, a dozen licensing agreements and more than 25 patents.

The light source used to help grow plants in the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURET
hardware has been adapted for use in a variety of medical treatments. Last
year, this technology was inducted in the Space Foundation’s Technology Hall
of Fame. Since 1988, the Hall of Fame has honored innovators who adapt
beneficial, commercial products from technology initially developed for the
space program.

“People at the Commercial Space Center in Wisconsin believed in our idea
when no one else did,” said Ronald Ignatius, president of Quantum Devices
Inc. – a company that makes light emitting diodes in Barneveld, Wis.

Quantum Devices made light emitting diodes for plant growth hardware flown
on numerous Space Shuttle missions and developed similar light sources for
the Space Station plant growth experiment hardware. The company has been
collaborating with

NASA and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee to study the benefits
of using this light source to treat brain and skin cancer and heal wounds.

NASA has scheduled several more commercial experiments for upcoming Space
Station expeditions.