Help Chicks In Space take plants for a spin in space

Chicks In Space (l-r) MaryAnn, Adia, and Lilly Bulawa with their prototype hydroponic centrifuge. Source: Chicks In Space

Chicks In Space (l-r) MaryAnn, Adia, and Lilly Bulawa with their prototype hydroponic centrifuge. Source: Chicks In Space

Welcome to the new American space program. Chicks In Space - sisters Adia, Lilly, and MaryAnn Bulawa - have a long history doing space research. Now they've built a plant growth experiment for the International Space Station. But the teenagers need your help getting their experiment into space

The young space scientists launched an Experiment.com crowdfunding campaign last month and have already raised over $3,700 towards their $15,000 goal.

“We have quite a bit of money we need to raise,” Lilly explained to me in a phone interview. “It’s been a little daunting.” 

“Starting it up was a bit stressful,” agreed MaryAnn. “We’re just amazed at the donations we’ve received so far. Even the fact that one person would come and donate something is just amazing. We’re really happy about it.”

One of Chicks In Space's heroes is Nasa astronaut Don Pettit whose Diary of a Space Zucchini documented the ups and downs of a plant growth experiment on the International Space Station. Credit: Nasa/Don Pettit

One of Chicks In Space's heroes is Nasa astronaut Don Pettit whose Diary of a Space Zucchini documented the ups and downs of a plant growth experiment on the International Space Station. Credit: Nasa/Don Pettit

Their experiment is a plant growth centrifuge. “It’s been shown that plants grown in microgravity aren’t as strong,” MaryAnn explained. “In order for space travel to be successful there needs to be gardening to produce food. We’re studying the plants to see if centripetal force would help the plants grow stronger and less brittle.”

Chicks In Space designed nanoEton to use a spinning centrifuge's centripetal force as a substitute for gravity. That will let nanoEton's traditional pumps circulate water through the hydroponic garden and help the plants grow stronger.

The nanoEton is just the latest in a long line of Chicks in Space projects. “We actually started about 6 years ago,” MaryAnn explained. “Our mom found a website where Nasa hosts their contests. The first project we did was a water purification project… for use on a Moon base.” 

“I have been entering NASA challenges since I was in second grade,” Adia told me. “I was a runner up in the Name Nasa's Next Mars Rover contest. I thought Curiosity should have been named Amelia - for Amelia Earhart who's airplane was called the flying laboratory. Ever since then we have participated in NASA challenges.” [Their local newspaper highlighted Adia's proposal.]

Their interest in hydroponics grew from a national science contest sponsored by BubbleWrap® manufacturer Sealed Air Corporation. “I created a floating hydroponic garden, named the Floating Garden of Bubbleon, out of Bubblewrap to be used to raise crops in areas destroyed by flooding,” Lilly explained. [Lilly was the Grand Prize Winner] “Since we always wanted to help space exploration I realized that hydroponics would be perfect to use in future space outposts.”

The Bulawa sisters went on to compete in the Nasa Glenn Research Center’s 2011 Balloonsats High-Altitude Flight program. Nasa selected their experiment “Viability of Hydroponic Gardens in Near Space Conditions” to fly 30 kilometers over Ohio in a high altitude balloon. A year later, Nasa invited Chicks In Space back to Ohio to take part in its Dropping In Microgravity Experiments contest. This program let high school students drop experiments in the space agency’s 2.2 Second Drop Tower. As an experiment chamber makes its 8-storey free fall, the experiment inside becomes weightless. That experience drove the Bulawa sisters to build their own drop tower so they could conduct more microgravity research. A camera took slow motion video of their experiments into fluid flow in microgravity. 

“It was really cool,” Lilly told me. “It was really interesting to see all the different experiments Nasa had and the equipment they had available. We started experimenting with hydroponics but realized that traditional gardens wouldn't work because they were all based on gravity. We then did a lot of research and made many prototypes of gardens that could circulate water without gravity.”

By 2013 Chicks In Space had developed their spinning hydroponics system, Garden of Eton, far enough to become finalists in the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. Nancy Conrad, the wife of Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad, created the contest to promote invention and entrepreneurialism among students around the world. But that day it wasn’t just friends and family watching as Adia, Lilly, and MaryAnn presented their project to the judges. So was Patricia Mayes, Director of DreamUp a non-profit that helps student teams raise money for space station experiments using platforms from space company NanoRacks.

[For more information about DreamUp, read my full interview with Patricia Mayes]

This is one of NanoRacks' experiment modules before being installed on the International Space Station. NanoRacks' standardized designs use as little of the astronauts' limited time as possible, letting scientists of all ages conduct more research for less money. Source: Nasa

This is one of NanoRacks' experiment modules before being installed on the International Space Station. NanoRacks' standardized designs use as little of the astronauts' limited time as possible, letting scientists of all ages conduct more research for less money. Source: Nasa

“I went over to see what the students were doing,” Patricia told me. As the Bulawa sisters demonstrated the desktop-sized Garden of Eton, “they mentioned in their presentation that [their] dream would be to take it to nanosize and test it on the International Space Station. One of the judges was a matchmaker and he was like ‘you have to meet the NanoRacks lady and maybe she can help you.’”

“We were extremely lucky,” MaryAnn said. “We were introduced to Patricia Mayes who told us about what she did. And it was really amazing because that’s what we wanted to do!”

Over the next year Chicks In Space redesigned their centrifuge to fit within NanoRacks' 4”x4"x4" experiment chamber. NanoRacks’ Chief Technology Officer, Mike Johnson, gave them feedback on meeting Nasa’s requirements for equipment sent to the space station. “Then they sent it to us and we did a functionality test,” Patricia said. “We plugged it right in and it worked fine.”

The nanoEton is ready for orbit once Chicks In Space complete their crowdfunding campaign. “We’ll have a control experiment down here," Lilly explained, "and they’ll have the same thing up there so we’ll be able to compare the plants.”

But they aren’t stopping there.

“We’re always trying new things,” MaryAnn said. “Right now we’re doing things with algae and radiation.”

One of their most recent projects was a bacteria growth experiment for Nasa’s 3D printing challenge. Adia explained that “the challenge was to invent a tool to be printed on the new 3D printer on the International Space Station. This was a great challenge because I learned about 3D printing and got to use SketchUp.” 

Their experience has set the Bulawa sisters on a course for science-related careers. MaryAnn is following her passion and majoring in mechanical engineering. Lilly wants to major in biology “and then hopefully go into the medical field - maybe doing some research - because I find it really fun.” As the youngest, Adia still has time to plan her future but says “I know I want to stay in the math and science field.”

And what do they have to say to other kids interested in space? “Just go for it! There’s so much opportunity out there,” MaryAnn explained. Adia added that “even though it seems difficult at first I always managed to get the project done, and I know that if they have the drive to keep going they will also succeed.” Lilly recommends asking for help: “There’s always people who want to help you succeed.”

Will you help Chicks In Space? Contribute to their Experiment.com crowdfunding campaign and then tell your friends and family how you helped put a spinning garden on the space station! 

 

Disclosure: I donated to the Chicks In Space crowdfunding campaign. Nobody associated with Chicks In Space or DreamUp were aware of this before I posted this article.