Yonatan Winetraub was thinking about chickpeas, as one does, when he came up with a cool idea. Lots of people get ideas, but when you’re a Stanford biophysics Ph.D. candidate who has already sent a lander to the moon, your ideas get a little more traction. So when the 34-year-old Israeli started talking about hummus in space, people listened.
“When I heard NASA will be sending astronauts to the moon,” he tells people, “the Jewish mother in me had to ask, ‘What are they going to eat?’”
Winetraub’s project will send chickpea plants to the International Space Station inside a small device that he calls “a miniaturized greenhouse.” Then experiments will be conducted using special LEDs to see how well plant growth can be controlled.
“We don’t know if chickpeas can grow in space,” he said. “This is something that has actually never been done before.”
Other plants have been grown on the space station, Winetraub said, but “this is different because we’re going to focus on the controllability.”
Winetraub said perfecting techniques for control (part of a field called synthetic biology) could be essential to growing crops in a space station — or on the moon or other planets — because it could allow for plants to sprout or fruit on command, making them a more reliable food source for astronauts, compared with the higgledy-piggledy growth of nature.
“I think it would be really cool to grow plants on the moon!” he said.
And why chickpeas? Because they’re nutritious and grow fast, Winetraub says. And, of course, you can make hummus out of them. “It’s, like — OK, let’s grow hummus! Let’s get it up there,” he said.
Winetraub, a former aerospace engineer, is full of big ideas. He was among a group of friends inspired by the Google Lunar XPRIZE who thought, Hey, what if Israel sent a lander to the moon? The result was the nonprofit Space IL and the Beresheet lander, which was launched in 2019. It would have been the first privately funded craft to land on the moon, and it almost made it, but crash landed in the moon’s Sea of Serenity.
Winetraub’s interest in space goes back to his childhood. “Ever since I was little, I was into Legos,” he said. “I was building rocket ships and robots.”
He went on to a high school that had a program for building and launching satellites, then studied electrical engineering and computational neuroscience at Tel Aviv University. He did an internship at NASA and was working as an aerospace engineer when he co-founded SpaceIL. At Stanford, he’s studying how cancer cells communicate — and working on hummus.
He has help from a team of colleagues in California and Israel, and the “hummus in space” project is also being backed by Strauss Group, the company that owns Sabra hummus.
“They’re not just providing funds, they’re providing their expertise,” Winetraub said.
The space hummus experiment will blast off for the International Space Station in early 2022, traveling on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets as part of a private expedition via Axiom Space, the first mission to the space station that will have a fully private crew (although a former NASA astronaut is helming it). One of the crew will be Israeli businessman and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, who is paying $55 million to take the trip.
Planning and building the experiment over the last six months has been “a crazy ride so far,” Winetraub said. But that’s just the kind of thing he likes. He wouldn’t talk about other projects he has in the works, or his plans after he finishes up his Ph.D. this year. But Winetraub clearly is not done thinking up cool ideas and big dreams for science.
“I think that’s the only way to make those things happen,” he said.