Today, in a vessel that experiences 16 sunrises a day, there will be a taste test of space lettuce. Cultivated aboard the International Space Station (ISS), today will be the first time an astronaut eats food planted and grown entirely outside the Earth.
The plants — a crop of “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce– were grown and harvested by the (very geeky) Expedition 44 crew members aboard the ISS, including year-in-space study participant Scott Kelly.
Eating vegetables grown in space was a part of NASA “Veg-01” experiment, grown from the ISS’ Veggie plant growth system (clever naming conventions, right?), but its first yield was actually sent back to Earth in October of last year. The second batch of seed “pillows” — self-contained growing mediums for the seeds and their roots — was activated by Scott Kelly on July 8th. After 33 days of growth, the space lettuce was ready for consumption (after being cleaned by sanitizing wipes of course).
And it looks like the lettuce was pretty good!
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) August 10, 2015
Only half of this extraterrestrial bounty was eaten, however. Like previous experiments, the remaining plants will be frozen and returned to Earth for analysis.
If we want to live in space or on another planet, we are going have to solve the food problem. There are of course the fuel and the atmosphere and the health-affecting gravity problems too, but if you don’t have anything to eat, those problems won’t matter much. Right now, astronauts (or future Lunatics or Martians) would have to rely almost exclusively on food that is sent up to them. We Earthlings make enough food here to feed them, but it’s not feasible economically. Fuel is expensive after all — it costs something like many tens of thousands of dollars to send one kilogram into orbit.
To have a sustainable place in space, therefore, we will need to grow our own food without the Earth’s help. Veg-01 is a step in that direction.
The Veggie growth system can be collapsed and expanded depending on how many plants are growing. Aside from the pillows that the seeds germinate in, each section has its own light panel that emits red, blue, and green light from LEDs.
“Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth,” said lead for Advanced Life Support activities Dr. Ray Wheeler. But the green is there for another reason. Green LEDs don’t put out as much light; they make plants look more like the greenery humans are used to. That in turn makes the lettuce more palatable and easier to examine.
Making plants grown in space look more like plants grown back on the surface of Earth isn’t a nutritional benefit, but a psychological one. And the simple act of tending plants in orbit each day is something that NASA believes will help astronauts bear the burden of utter isolation. The trip to Mars alone can take over half a year. Better to tend to a garden than freak out over the fingernail that accidentally floated directly into your eye.
You can read more about the development of the Veggie system from NASA here.