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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Local grads plan Mars veggies

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Two Hawai'i students who met as dueling eighth-graders in the National Spelling Bee five years ago are working together as Massachusetts college students to grow vegetables on Mars.

For the past few months, Cheryl Inouye and Nicole Hori have been on a team of students from the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, wrestling with how to set up a functional, automated greenhouse to provide fresh salad for future astronauts on the Red Planet.

It's part of a national NASA competition that asked college engineering students across the country to submit designs for a greenhouse in space that would function for 20 years.

"I would hope NASA wouldn't trust a multi-million-dollar mission to pre-freshmen," said Inouye, the 19-year-old daughter of James and Susan Inouye of Pearl City.

But she hopes space officials will incorporate some student ideas when they build the Mars greenhouse.

In the Olin student proposal, robots pick the tomatoes, computers plant the seeds, stored hydrogen is turned into water, and titanium forms the light flexible framework.

It could earn top marks in the final leg of the competition, which takes place today and tomorrow at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Olin team is one of six finalists.

Hori and Inouye are two of just 30 "pre-freshmen" enrolled at the new college in Needham, Mass., which gives all students free tuition and housing for all four years (five, in the case of pre-freshmen), thanks to a $300 million endowment from the F.W. Olin Foundation. While the college won't open officially until fall, the Olin team was delighted to have made the final round alongside established colleges that have the benefit of senior and post-graduate team members.

The Hawai'i students' team recognize that it would be desirable to have a garden where astronauts could putter. But that isn't possible.

"It lands on its own and will start operations independently," said Hori, the 18-year-old daughter of Art and Gayle Hori of Honolulu. "So it's designed to be very self-sufficient. The astronauts won't get to work there, but that also eliminates the possibility of a human pathogen getting into the plants in the greenhouse, which would then be in the food supply."

The greenhouse that is actually built will land on Mars about six months before the astronauts, plummeting down near (but hopefully not on top of) the Mars Space Station, and go into immediate production.

"Our greenhouse is entirely non-human-controlled," said Inouye. "Seeds are planted by the computer, harvested by the computer, temperature regulations and water systems and times for the lights are controlled by a computer."

Adds Hori: "We'll have different robots harvesting the crops. There will be some that look like a hand and an arm that can actually grab the tomatoes."

While the greenhouse will provide fresh produce to spice up the diet and add needed calories, it will also provide an emotional bonus for astronauts sick of packaged food.

"We just had a former astronaut, Jeff Hoffman, who worked on Hubble, come speak with us last week, and he said every time he got back from a mission the first thing he'd have was a huge salad," said Hori. "This will be something that has psychological benefits as well."

In tackling the hypothetical project, the team chose soybeans, sweet potatoes, wheat, hydroponic tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce to supply future astronauts with a healthy diet and plenty of calories to supplement packaged food.

"One of the tricky things is just providing an environment in which the plants can survive," said Inouye. "It's a completely different atmosphere — mostly carbon dioxide, with pretty much no water available. We're going to bring hydrogen, store it and take oxygen from the air on Mars and have a chemical reaction make water. Over the total life span of 20 years, the greenhouse will produce 10,000 liters of water."

As the students put together systems for the 20-foot-long cylindrical greenhouse, they also had to worry about providing back-up systems in case of failure. "We have three separate ways for power," said Inouye. "Fuel cells, solar panels and RTGs, a type of nuclear reaction."

Inouye graduated from Pearl City High School and was one of three valedictorians and a member of the marching band. Hori attended Upper Columbia Academy in Washington state, where the family moved for a few years before returning to Hawai'i last year.