Flying pizza that reaches for the stars

America's future astronauts might travel a long way from home, but at least they'll still be able to get the essentials of earthly eating - pizza, cookies and fresh bread. The key: a 15-year project at Utah State University which has succeeded in developing a fast-growing dwarf wheat that NASA, the US space agency, will grow in future space missions.

Called Apogee, the specially-bred wheat has been developed specifically to thrive in space. Its yield of 600 bushels per acre is treble that of the best of natural strains, and its heads of grain emerge after three weeks, a week before earthbound rivals. It also produces fewer branches than rivals, so using less energy on growing and more on producing grain. And it is only 18 inches high when mature - an advantage in the cramped environment of a spacecraft.

Long space missions to Mars and other planets - and perhaps one day to the stars - will call for spacecraft which function as self-contained ecosystems, where astronauts' food is produced onboard. It is more efficient, and much less expensive, to use the plentiful solar energy to grow food during the journey, rather than hauling it all the way from Earth.

Apogee wheat will be grown on the International Space Station, due to be built by 2002, and Bruce Bugbee, professor of plant physiology at Utah State University, is already working on other crops. Tomatoes, rice and soybeans are high up the international list of ingredients in space travellers' onboard farms. And making a pizza would not require a space cow: "You can make vegetarian cheese," Professor Bugbee points out.

"Rice and potatoes take very little preparation to eat, it's true," the professor said yesterday. "But the bad news is they only make one product. Whereas without too much extra processing, wheat gives you the basis of noodles, pizza bases, cookies - it's the basis of the food we eat."

An area of Apogee wheat about 30-yards-square would meet one person's needs indefinitely, given the right light conditions, said Professor Bugbee, and harvesting and processing could be automated. An experiment is due to start within the next two years to see whether a space farm using the latest newly-bred crops is viable, in which astronauts will live in a sealed pod in NASA's Johnson Space Centre in their own space farm. "We could be ready in the near future to have people permanently living in space," said Professor Bugbee.

Those unable to get that far can still get a taste of Apogee. The University is making free samples available to laboratories and schools worldwide. Those interested can apply via post to the USU Crop Physiology Laboratory, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, or by email to bugbee@cc.usu.edu.

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