Today’s the day astronauts aboard the International Space Station will get to eat fresh produce they grew themselves. It’s a project that’s been more than a year in the making, with a batch of red lettuce being grown from seed, freeze-dried, then brought back on Space-X for testing in a NASA lab last October. After everything checked out, Scott Kelly (who’s on a year-long mission aboard ISS) started a second batch of lettuce in July for a taste-testing, from seeds that had been on board for 15 months.
The greenhouse system that’s allowing them to do this is called VEG-01, or Veggie, and was developed by a Wisconsin company called Orbital Technologies. They’re using the technology being tested in space on the ground, as well, in places like Dubai, which has to import 95 percent of its food because of inhospitable growing conditions.
It’s the first open-air greenhouse ever used in space, and due to that, there had to be a lot of tests to make sure the food wasn’t affected by space microbes flying around. Despite the thumbs-up from NASA scientists back home, the new batch of lettuce will be cleaned with citric-acid-based sanitizing wipes before consumption later today.
The Veggie uses red, blue and green LEDs arranged above plant “pillows” — little grow bags with the seedlings inside that allow for root development — to encourage the plants to grow upwards like they would on Earth. Along with the red romaine lettuce, they are growing zinnias. The flowers are going to be monitored to see how pollination works in zero gravity. Interestingly enough, they only really need the red and blue lights to grow, but without the green, the plants will all be purple-ish. So, green light was added simply to make the plants prettier and more human-appealing.
Along with the physical health benefits of being able to consume fresh produce instead of freeze-dried food, NASA has found that space gardening has psychological pluses, as well. Everyone got to help water the crop and it was exciting to have a little piece of home out in space. According to Paul Zamprelli of ORBITEC:
They loved it. When they came back here and did their speeches, there was a lot on Veggie. Veggie is something that is very wholesome, good, and fun. It was a lot of fun for them to tend to the garden.
And that was before they even got to eat anything.
Dr. Ray Wheeler, head of the Advanced Life Support systems, claims space fruit might also prevent side effects from space dust:
There is evidence that supports fresh foods, such as tomatoes, blueberries and red lettuce, are a good source of antioxidants. Having fresh food like these available in space could have a positive impact on people’s moods and also could provide some protection against radiation in space.
The Veggie project will continue in order to develop it further for the Mission to Mars.