UH Hilo Team Works on Food Security for NASA’s Moon Missions

By Lichen Forster

Graphic of a rocket ship with stars As NASA makes plans to return astronauts to the moon, UH Hilo students are getting involved in designing lunar food systems—and they’re including Hawaiian plants.

When Kamalani Poepoe (“Kama”) was a toddler, her family lived in a Waianae apartment building, just off the beach. At night, her father would take her out to the sand and they would look up at the stars together. By early elementary school, she knew she wanted to be an astronomer. For the rest of her early schooling, she invested herself heavily in robotics and any extracurricular that would teach her more about STEM.

Poepoe is now double majoring in astronomy and geology at UH Hilo. Last semester, Professor Heather Kaluna told Poepoe about a project Kaluna wanted to start that would involve native culture.

“I had started planning…to build more cultural relevance into my research,” said Kaluna. “Being part Hawaiian, that’s something I’ve been a little hungry for.”

Kaluna’s research focuses on objects without an atmosphere; asteroids, comets, and, the moon. During the pandemic, she spent lots of time gardening and specifically growing kalo, which started her thinking about the role her culture can play in her science. With a new age of space exploration opening up, she began thinking of ways Hawaiian culture could continue its legacy of exploration, beyond Earth.

“There’s just so much knowledge and wisdom within our culture and our tradition of exploration,” said Kaluna.

Kamalani Poepoe and Trinity Parascandola smiling for the camera in front of a white boardKamalani Poepoe and Trinity Parascandola

In recent years, several countries have made and executed plans for new space missions. Last April, the European Space Agency launched JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer), which will explore three of Jupiter’s moons. The JUICE probe will search for signs of life, possibly in the water ice believed to be present under the surface of these moons. Last August, both Russia and India sent crafts to the moon, though only India’s landed safely. One of the major reasons for exploring the moon again is that there has been some evidence that water may be present at its south pole. It can also be used as a sort of “jumping off point” for going elsewhere in the solar system, which is one of the ways NASA is viewing it.

Under the Artemis program, NASA has started sending spacecrafts to the moon, with the goal of establishing a lunar base that can be used to study further bodies, like Mars.

In Nov. 2022, Artemis I launched as an uncrewed test flight that orbited and flew beyond the moon. Artemis II is intended for Sept. 2025, when a crewed flight will take the same path. The following year, NASA aims to land astronauts at the lunar south pole, from Artemis III. Succeeding Artemis missions aim to set up base and continue the work of establishing long-term presence on the moon.

In 2021, NASA started the NASA MINDS (MUREP-Minority Innovative New Designs for Space-Innovative New Designs for Space) competition. Open to college students at “Minority Serving Institutions”, the competition provides funding for design projects intended to support Artemis.

These projects can include ways to ensure food security on the moon, as the UHH team’s project this year aims to do, but other projects include work with mapping, satellite use, and transportation on the lunar surface.

The idea of entering NASA MINDS 2024 was brought to Kaluna by Jose Loera, a UHH student taking classes remotely from Texas. Over the course of the first few weeks of last semester, the “Lunar Vulcans” team was assembled and consisted of Loera, Poepoe, Trinity Parascandola and Maxwell Barr.

Inspired by Kaluna’s ponderings, the Lunar Vulcans proposed testing the efficacy of growing Hawaiian canoe plants on the lunar surface.

Line of cups of ʻuala at different growth stagesʻUala at different growth stages

Two huge white bags of volcanic soil on the desk workspaceThe team predicts that Hawaiian canoe plants will interact with the volcanic lunar soil in the similar ways to Hawaiʻi's volcanic soil

“Canoe plants” refer to those brought by the first arrival of Polynesians to the islands. They had been cultivated for many years and chosen for the voyages because they were reliable, hardy, and could be used for a variety of purposes. Examples of canoe plants selected as food sources are ‘uala (sweet potato), ‘ulu (breadfruit) and kalo (taro.)

Poepoe takes a lot of pride in working on a project that is so rooted in her culture, and Parascandola, who is Thai, is also committed to the cultural aspects of the project. Not being Hawaiian herself, she has taken a lot of pride and commitment in Hawaiian culture since arriving in Hilo.

She grew up in El Segundo, California, and being so close to LAX obscured her view of the stars. In sixth grade, she visited the Jet Propulsion Lab, a center in Pasadena that, among other things, houses some of the rovers that went to Mars. Seeing these things up close inspired Parascandola to follow STEM fields through high school, and eventually choose UHH for its astronomy program. Now an astrophysics major, she tries to center culture in a lot of her work.

Trinity Parascandola tending to the ʻuala plantsTrinity Parascandola arranges an ʻuala cutting

Poepoe and Parascandola are the main members working on the design at this stage of the competition, though Loera continues to Zoom in for meetings and to offer his feedback. Kaluna is a mentor, as is PISCES Director Christian Anderson. At the beginning of this semester, following acceptance of their project proposal, the Lunar Vulcans received $1,500 in funding to work on their project.

Their primary focus for NASA MINDS is on growing ‘uala, which grows quickly and in a variety of conditions.

Because basalt comprises major surfaces of the moon, the team believes that ‘uala could grow similarly there as it does in Hawaiʻi, where it has thrived in basaltic soils.

They are designing a hydroponics system; the ‘uala will grow in a bin of black cinder, watered using a wicking system. A wick (like the thing you burn in candles) is placed in the water bucket and strung to the cinder bucket, feeding water to the roots of the ‘uala. The plant will take in only what it needs, making it a great system for use in a place with limited water resources, like the moon.

Graphic of a moon with an assortment of plants growing on it

Three cups of different soil types, one with black cinder, perlite, and basalt sandDifferent soil types for the project

The competition will conclude with an awards ceremony, where underclassmen teams like the Lunar Vulcans could take home as much as $3,000. Poepoe and Parascandola want to go as far in the competition as they can, but feel there is work to be done beyond the specifications of NASA MINDS. They intend to use the competition for experience and to get feedback, but want to continue working on the project long after the competition is over. With a start on ‘uala, they want to eventually test kalo and the other canoe plants for efficiency in space’s new gardens.

Kamalani Poepoe describing her preliminary system of housing volcanic soil and waterTeam lead Kamalani describes their preliminary system: the black bin will house the volcanic soil and water will be drip fed to the plants above in the clear bin

Two cups of ʻuala on the deskʻUala sit in a cup in the team's workspace