The unifying goal of research at this NSCORT was determining the feasibility of a Controlled Ecological Life-Support System (CELSS) being sustainable with respect to power, labor, and materials. The CELSS concept is that a life-support system closed with respect to mass, but open with respect to energy can operate almost indefinitely in space without resupply from Earth. A CELSS will have one or more heterotrophic components (human crew, animals) as well as photoautotrophic components (crop plants, algae). A simplified version of a CELSS depicting regeneration of carbon, oxygen, water, and mineral resources by cycling mass through biological organisms is shown in a schematic representation.
NSCORT research at Purdue University in the early 1990's addressed aspects of the three most important functional subsystems of a CELSS; 1) biomass production, 2) food science, technology, and human nutrition, and 3) waste management. It also addressed the all-important issue of sub-system integration to form a complex, dynamic system composed of both biological and physico-chemical pathways to cycle biomass and its organic and inorganic constituents. Two NSCORT biotechnology and genetic engineering projects contributed to the sustainability of a CELSS by improving the nutritional value of edible biomass, or by extending the proportion of biomass that is potentially edible.
NSCORT research projects typically involved one or two trainees per laboratory. The training mission of this NSCORT was to provide a cadre of cross-trained graduates in space life sciences available for careers in government service, with industrial contractors to NASA, or for academic positions in which they might become future grantees of NASA in the Space Life Sciences, including the CELSS program.