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NHTI Students Explore Growing Crops in Space

NHTI STEM students participate in NASA’s Plant the Moon and Plant Mars challenges

NHTI Students participate in the Plant the Moon and Plant Mars projects.
NHTI Students participate in the Plant the Moon and Plant Mars projects.

CONCORD – You no longer have to use a telescope to study the surface of Mars – not when you’re on the campus of NHTI – Concord’s Community College, anyway.

NHTI professor Tracey Lesser’s Biology senior capstone students and the NHTI Environmental Action Club are participating in NASA’s Plant the Moon and Plant Mars challenges, giving them the opportunity to grow crops in a lunar or Martian soil simulant to study how these plants grow in non-Earth environments.

“When I saw this opportunity, I was so excited,” says Lesser. “The project demonstrates for students the intricacies of the space environment while learning how to make biological decisions in an experimental classroom setting. It’s invaluable in teaching future generations that anything is possible, given the right conditions.”

The Plant Mars and Plant the Moon global citizen science projects aim to help NASA learn how to support astronauts on long-term space missions. The winners will have the chance to showcase their results at a virtual symposium with NASA scientists, program executives, and other industry professionals.

“This is why people love NHTI,” says NHTI President Dr. Patrick Tompkins. “By partnering with NASA, our innovative professors position our students to breach environmental hurdles and problem-solve for an entirely new area of exploration: long-term space travel.”

NHTI shares its campus with the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, a space exploration museum and experience inspired by NH’s own pioneers Alan Shephard Jr., the first American in space and native of Derry, and Christa McAuliffe, the world’s first teacher-astronaut, from Concord, whose story tragically ended in 1986 but whose legacy lives on.

“This is truly an exciting, impactful project,” notes Jeanne T. Gerulskis, executive director of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. “From the dawn of humanity, people have set out to explore our environs. And as a space-faring society, our logical next steps are to explore the solar system, beginning with our nearest neighbors: the Moon and Mars. As we prepare to return to the Moon and plan stations where people will live and work – first on the Moon and then on Mars – of vital importance will be able the ability to grow our own food in these challenging environments. Future lunar and Martian explorers may have NHTI students to thank for the bountiful harvests that let them enjoy living and working offworld!”

NHTI’s participation in the projects comprises two teams: Plant Mars is made up of Erin Sylvester and Alyvia Syriac, who are using the research as their NHTI capstone, or final project, for their Biology associate degrees; while Sophia Carroll, Becker Gibson, Gage Lambert, and Christopher Schubert, all part of NHTI’s student-run Environmental Action Club (EAC) team, are leading the Plant the Moon project. The EAC team is growing radishes, based on competition length and as suggested by the NASA germination and harvest timeline, while the Biology team is growing cabbage. The students are gaining hands-on experience with experimental design, learning about plant growth and the conditions that impact it, and exploring space while using their STEM, language, and interpersonal skills.

“In this experiment, we aim to address two main challenges when growing edible plants in regolith: water retention and nutrient content,” explains Lesser. “Regolith, or moon dust, is both sandy and virtually devoid of beneficial nutrients. We propose that vermiculite, a mineral commonly used in gardening, could potentially be used as an additive to help retain moisture in soil compositions with a high regolith-to-soil ratio.”

“It’s exciting to be able to say, ‘Our team is working on a NASA project!’” says NHTI student and EAC team member Gibson. “Experimenting with growing plants in the regolith is one more step towards bringing people to other planets, which feels larger than life.

“We had to consider some interesting questions while designing our experiment, like: How can we use as many recycled materials as possible? How do we make the required materials as light as possible to lower the initial interplanetary transportation cost? What are the current regulations on farming with human waste/biosolids? I love working with this group because we are engaging with each other using an intellectual curiosity on such a big project, while still having fun with it and making it our own.”

For more information about the Plant the Moon and Plant Mars projects, you can visit

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NHTI – Concord’s Community College

NHTI – Concord’s Community College is a dynamic public 2-year college that provides rewarding academics and a full campus experience for students, businesses, and the community. NHTI offers 80+ academic programs to 4,600+ students annually. Our programs include Nursing, Dental Hygiene, Engineering, Liberal and Visual Arts, Education, Criminal Justice, and Mathematics, all with our stellar reputation for academic excellence earned over our more than 50 years serving the Concord community. NHTI is accredited by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the NE Association of Schools and Colleges and is part of the Community College System of New Hampshire.

Press Contact           Amber Gavriluk  |  603-230-4001  |


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