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When Neil Armstrong took one small step onto the moon in 1969, it seemed only a matter of time before the advent of thriving space colonies and summer vacations on distant planets. But after an initial flurry of moon landings, manned lunar expeditions dwindled: the last time an astronaut left his footprints on the moon was in 1972.

Then, in January 2004, President Bush announced NASA's intention to return humans to the moon by 2020, and in 2006, NASA announced plans to set up a manned lunar outpost by 2024, with the European and Russian Space Agencies now planning bases of their own. After years in limbo, the dream of living in space is alive once more.

Sustaining long-term space habitation presents space agencies with a whole new set of technological and logistical challenges. Currently, the International Space Station supports three astronauts in a low Earth orbit, with food supplied periodically by space shuttle. But, just as home cooking is cheaper than getting takeout, when it comes to more permanent settlements, this kind of supply voyages would be prohibitively expensive: we will need to grow our own food in space.

Raymond Wheeler, a plant physiologist at Kennedy Space Center, explained to CNN, "In the near term it's not needed, for example on the space station and initial short sorties to the moon, but as you go further and stay longer, regenerative systems become much more cost effective."

Wheeler sees this development of space farming as a gradual process in which space outposts become increasingly self-sufficient. "It would probably be evolutionary," he said. "The first human missions to Mars might set out with everything stowed, but they might set up the beginnings of an in-situ production system -- maybe a plant chamber -- that you could use to grow perishable foods. You wouldn't be providing everything, but in subsequent missions if you returned there you could expand the infrastructure." Read full article »

All About NASARussian Federal Space AgencyEuropean Space AgencyInternational Space StationKennedy Space CenterSouth PoleMars Exploration

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