Growing plants in space

TUM alumnus Christian Bruderrek wants to work with a group of high-school students in Germany to investigate whether and how plants can grow under zero-gravity conditions in space. V3PO is the first “Jugend forscht” (Germany’s best-known competition for young scientists and researchers) project to be included in the NASA Education program. Bruderrek and his young colleagues are taking the unusual route of crowdfunding to finance their research. In our interview, he explains how and why we should all donate to this project.


Mr. Bruderrek, you graduated from TUM with a degree in aerospace engineering in 2004. How did you benefit from your time at TUM?

Apart from the opportunity to study and gain a degree in aerospace engineering, TUM gave me the chance to develop my passion for aerospace. This was mainly due to the optional lectures and work placements I was able to take – some of which were held by former astronauts such as Reinhold Ewald. In addition, the university chairs always supported our efforts to take part in ESA student campaigns. As a result, our team ended up joining three parabolic flight campaigns, which proved to be an invaluable source of experience. It also laid the foundations for the work I do now and the cornerstone for the professional network I have been building since my studies.

What did you do after TUM?

I initially moved to Lake Constance to work in the aviation industry. After only a short time, however, I moved to a smaller engineering company in Ravensburg (Germany) that carried out aerospace projects for companies such as Airbus (at that time EADS and Astrium), Kayser Threde and Liebherr. In 2011, I moved on to RUAG Space in Zurich to work as a systems engineer for satellite structures. After working on major projects such as ATV, ARV and satellite projects such as BepiColumbo, EarthCare and Sentinel, the IXV project proved a personal highlight for me during my three-and-a-half year stint at that company. IXV is a European re-entry vehicle which was successfully launched into space and returned to Earth in February 2015.

My wife and children didn’t come with me to Switzerland, however, and so when I was offered the role of project manager for life science experiments in space at Airbus Defence and Space in Friedrichshafen, I seized the opportunity to move back to the German side of Lake Constance.

Now you want to grow vegetables in space with a group of high school students. Why?

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Pupils in the lab. Photo: Sarah Schleiblinger.

Pupils in the lab. Photo: Sarah Schleiblinger.

My personal goal is to show these young people – and everyone else in Germany – that the space station is accessible to everyone, and that you can carry out research there even on a relatively low budget. Through my work with NASA and the US company NanoRacks, I got to see several projects at US high schools. I was really impressed with the topics they were researching and the technical solutions they used to solve the challenges they were tackling. In the US, a lot of school projects are carried out on the International Space Station (ISS). And they are very popular because the station creates ideal conditions for many different research opportunities. By working with my students, I want to draw attention to this and also make people here aware of the research opportunities that are available on the ISS. I believe that German schoolchildren should also have the opportunity to explore the mysteries of space.

What are the pupils’ roles in this project?

They are responsible for all of the scientific details for our V3PO project. This starts with the initial idea for the experiment. They are currently working in their school labs to develop the best and most successful workflow for a potential ISS experiment. Key issues here include finding a suitable plant and getting the right lighting as well as choosing a nutrient system and fungicide. All I am doing is helping them identify what factors need to be taken into consideration with regard to weightlessness, as well as transport to and from the space station. The students will also carry out all analyses and evaluations once the mission has returned from space.

How did V3PO come about? Were you involved from the very beginning?

My wife Barbara works at the Edith-Stein School in Ravensburg. When I told her about the opportunities available to American schoolchildren, she introduced me to her colleague Brigitte Schürmann who regularly supervises groups within the framework of the “Jugend forscht” initiative. I encouraged Brigitte to work on an idea for an experiment with her students, and then sent the result to NanoRacks via my contacts. Everyone was very enthusiastic about it and so it was given the green light for this flight. I suppose if I had to pinpoint the very beginning, I would say July 2013. There was an open day at Airbus in Friedrichshafen and I was showing Brigitte the experiments that had already been flown to the station. That’s when the basic idea started to take shape. The students have been developing the actual idea for the experiment since the start of this school year (2014).

Why is fresh food important? Can’t astronauts keep living off the packets and bottles of food they already use?

The astronauts’ wellbeing is crucial to the success of missions, especially long missions (on the ISS) and flights (for example, to Mars). I think everyone can understand that the right, fresh food can make a positive contribution here. Ensuring plants can be propagated to consistently high quality standards is also an important factor in planning these kinds of missions. It’s an easy equation really: If it can be grown and harvested on the station, it doesn’t have to be included in the astronauts’ payload and brought into orbit at the start of a mission.

What are the long-term goals of this project?

I want to highlight the fact that nowadays there are commercial and very easy ways of accessing the space station. These channels make it possible for anyone to carry out research in space. I think that NanoRacks’ slogan “Space for everyone” sums this up perfectly.

Was the idea of crowdfunding there from the very beginning or did you try other means of financing first?

Of course, we contacted ESA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) first. But because our students wanted to take part in a competition organized by the “Jugend forscht” initiative, both organizations had to remain neutral and did not want to favor any particular competitor through targeted funding. In the US, lots of different scientific and not-for-profit projects have been realized through crowdfunding platforms such as www.experiment.com. And although in Germany several start-up ideas have been launched through sites such as www.kickstarter.de, most of these have a commercial background. The German site www.sciencestarter.de proved perfect for us as it focuses on these kinds of scientific and not-for-profit projects. The philosophy behind crowdfunding also aligns perfectly with the idea of making the space station accessible to everyone.

Latest information on the project 

Information on funding

TUM Department of Aerospace Engineering

 

German Version

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