Guest researcher Jess Bunchek from NASA's Kennedy Space Center will stay in Antarctica for a year from the end of January 2021 and live at the German Neumayer III Station, which is operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI). She will investigate plant cultivation for isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) environments like space in the EDEN ISS greenhouse, which is managed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Institute of Space Systems and has produced fresh crops for science and the overwintering crews since early 2018. In this interview she speaks about her home in the USA, her preparations in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christmas holidays at sea and the adventure to come on the world's iciest continent.
Interview by Falk Dambowsky
Jess, you are going to stay in the most remote region of the world, where you will cultivate plants in the polar night with only ice and snow around you. Where did you get your interest in plants from and where do you come from originally?
It has always been a passion! Even as a toddler, I loved to be outside, not only playing with plants but also really studying them. I am from Northwest Indiana, which is close to Chicago where the Indiana Dunes National Park and nearby farmland are situated along the shore of Lake Michigan. It was wonderful to have access to places that have been protected. I was passionate about biodiversity and how we can preserve this beautiful area that I call home, and that was a catalyst for wanting to study this discipline in college.
You studied botany, but you are also interested in technology. You work on the experiment team of the NASA Veggie project, including growing plants in space on the International Space Station. How does this fit together?
Growing up, I was convinced I wanted to become an engineer and work with space systems, but when I was applying for university, I realised that this was not my real passion at the time. Instead, I started with botany, which was the perfect decision. I was unaware there were applied plant science careers with space applications until I was finishing my master's degree in agronomy and read about the NASA Veggie project on the internet. I found a unique and passionate way to work with both plants and technology in aerospace after all!
Sounds like a very quick transition. What does your work with the NASA Veggie project look like?
I defended my master's thesis in Pennsylvania on a Friday and started my NASA internship at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida the following Tuesday, so it was a quick move across the country! As an intern I assisted with an experiment in the Veggie system, 'VEG-04A', that was being prepared to launch to the International Space Station in December 2018. It was wonderful to receive hands-on experience with the plants and hardware and to learn more about the process required to conduct science in space. I worked on the study's flight verification tests and even helped prepare the payload for launch; it meant a lot to have my mentor's trust to assist with that. We ran the 'VEG-04A' experiment on orbit in July 2019, which grew Mizuna mustard greens – a crop that is also in EDEN ISS in Antarctica! I stayed at the Kennedy Space Center following my internship and have continued to help prepare and support Veggie experiments and flight payloads.
Good point, how did you discover the EDEN ISS project?
EDEN ISS came up from a different perspective. I first became interested in going to Antarctica while I was studying botany at Purdue University. I knew it would be a challenge, but I wanted to find a way to go not as a tourist, but as a scientist at a research station. The idea stayed with me and started to become more realistic once I got to NASA. I researched the US stations first, including McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott, to see if they were doing plant research. They have, but those programmes are not running currently. Then I started thinking, are there any other options? When I searched online for 'crops in Antarctica', EDEN ISS was the first result.
What did you think at that moment? How did you move forward?
I learned German in school, have German in my family history, and did a summer exchange program in Wiesbaden. I figured that I understood the language and culture well enough to try this option. The EDEN ISS project is run by DLR, so I thought it would be especially interesting to collaborate with another space agency. When the summer season ended, I reached out to the EDEN ISS team, who were just back from Antarctica. They said it would be interesting to get someone down there again, but the main challenge would be to find funding. Fortunately, a couple months later, another researcher from the EDEN ISS team came to the Kennedy Space Center for a robotics workshop and presented on the project. It caught the attention of the right people at NASA, and I was able to get their support. For the next year we worked with DLR to establish a new collaboration, and now here I am in Germany preparing to go to Antarctica.
Challenges need preparation. How do you prepare for this Antarctic overwinter mission?
The preparation is everything! I think what is so interesting about going to Neumayer III Station is our preparation period. It is long compared to other stations, partially because AWI wants to make sure that the overwintering team is the right fit. But also, because we will be isolated for the entire winter, we must be prepared for any situation. That includes intense training like the mountain glacier survival course and the fire protection course. I have also been with the EDEN research group at DLR in Bremen to learn as much as I can about the technical and operational aspects of EDEN ISS.
What special moments and insights stand out from the last months?
The knowledge I have gained from my time at NASA and this overwintering preparation have helped me see how this kind of training can relate to how astronauts train for their missions. I especially liked the mountain course, where we went to a glacier in the Tirol region of Austria for a week. Because Neumayer III is located on an ice shelf, we learned to navigate confidently in the glacier environment. We worked through different scenarios as a whole group, in smaller groups, and as pairs, including rescuing someone who has fallen into a crevasse in the ice, treating injuries, stabilising and transporting someone with hypothermia, and finding lost crew members. It was also a great opportunity to bond as a team. We had to hike and carry all of the equipment for a whole week, and the weather was often poor. It was physically and mentally challenging, but it was also a great experience!
That seems to be a very good base for staying isolated for several months in Antarctica. How do you prepare especially for that isolation?
Talking about it has been the most helpful. The isolation is on everybody’s mind. We had conflict and crisis management courses, where we trained how to avoid and work through tough situations as a team, especially because we will be together for so long in a stressful environment. From a personal standpoint, I do yoga regularly, which has both physical and mental health benefits. And as we've seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, we can use technologies to help us stay connected with our friends and family back home …
… and the coronavirus pandemic does affect mission plans. How will the upcoming overwintering mission be different to previous missions to Neumayer III station?
Our training has included a lot of virtual meetings. I had to quarantine when I first got to Germany, and we will also quarantine prior to leaving for Antarctica in December. People usually travel to Neumayer III via plane, but this year we will travel by ship. That changes not only how we will get to the station but also how long we will be in isolation. The isolation phase normally begins in February or early March, but this year it will start later in March. As overwinterers, we will also have a heavier summer work schedule, since we will have fewer people at Neumayer III in the summer phase to complete the annual maintenance.
This means you will be celebrating Christmas on the Atlantic Ocean heading towards Antarctica?
Yes, we will depart on Polarstern on 20 December, traveling directly from Bremerhaven in Germany straight down to Neumayer III Station. The journey will take us one month, but we will not port along the way to prevent bringing the virus onto the ship and potentially compromising the entire overwintering mission. While we are still in the northern hemisphere, we expect to have limited internet and phone service connections to the outside world, but then in the southern hemisphere it will be pretty much nothing. Arriving at the Antarctic shelf ice and seeing EDEN ISS in person after that long trip will be very special.
As a guest researcher at DLR you are still working together with NASA. What will the benefits be of this DLR/NASA cooperation, doing research together in the EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse?
EDEN ISS is a unique project; there are only a couple of other facilities like this in the world. It is even more unique due to the extreme climate and the overwintering aspect. This collaboration between DLR and NASA aims to help shape the design of a future lunar or Martian greenhouse and the requirements of astronaut crew support. DLR has been using EDEN ISS to study the systems engineering, including components and resources like lighting, airflow, nutrient solution, etc. as well as things like crew time, and communication with experts back in Germany. NASA has expertise with crop selection for spaceflight, astronaut support, nutrition, and crew psychology. Both agencies conduct microbiology research, which focuses on food and system safety. Now, with the EDEN ISS collaboration, the two agencies can work together to reach a common goal.
What do you think about eating your first salad from EDEN ISS? Have you thought about this already?
I cannot wait to eat red romaine lettuce. This is one of our foundation crops at the Kennedy Space Center. Because we have worked with it so much, we generally know what to expect, so this crop is especially valuable when testing new hardware or environments. It also has beautiful leaves, grows quickly, and tastes great. The other overwinterers on my team haven't had this particular cultivar of lettuce. As we have cooked together during our training, they have asked if we will have this other kind of lettuce crop in EDEN ISS, referring to lettuce from the grocery store. And I've joked: No, this will be even better, don't worry, because we get to grow it ourselves.