Growing Food in Space

One of the most well known tropes of the space-faring experience is “astronaut food.” When people think of the food astronauts eat while in space, they think of freeze-dried fruits and meats, bite-sized cubes of flavorless protein, and entrees that have to be squeezed out of tubes.

For the men of Project Mercury, this was the case. Subsequent missions, however, have seen drastically improved food menus. Nowadays, astronauts enjoy food at a quality rivaling that of your average TV dinner. As you read this, the crew of the International Space Station are picking their meals from a selection of food that includes scrambled eggs, shrimp cocktail, beef tips with mushroom, pudding, and chocolate chip cookies. They’re arguably eating better than most people on Earth!

The science of food in space is a constantly evolving field, and one such advancement has just recently made headlines. On August 10th, NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly, along with JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui of Japan, became the first men ever to eat food grown in space. Kelly had tended to a garden in Veg-01, the food-growing module that housed the plants, for 33 days before harvesting some of the romaine lettuce for the crew to sample. Topped with a little balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, the space lettuce received glowing reviews from the crew, who noted that it tasted “fresh” and “kind of like arugula.”

While this is not the first time that vegetables have successfully been grown on the ISS (the crew members of NASA Expedition 39 sent back some lettuce for analysis last year), it is the first time that the plants have been consumed by humans.

While a seemingly benign announcement on the surface, this success is of monumental importance. NASA is currently studying the effects of space-grown food on human physiology as part of its larger plan to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030’s. The ability to grow fresh food is paramount to any potential Mars mission, both for the nutritional benefits it provides the astronauts, as well as the possible psychological benefits that may stem from growing green plants in the otherwise cold and mechanical surroundings of a NASA shuttle.

The successful harvest comes courtesy of the Orbital Technologies Corporation’s Vegetable Production System, or “Veggie,” which was extensively tested at Kennedy Space Center before being delivered to the ISS by the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship last year. The Veggie system features a set of collapsible LED light panels that utilize red and blue lights to provide the minimum amount of light needed to grow the plants without sucking up too much electricity. The panels also include green LED’s that allow the astronauts to more easily view the plant’s progress. The seeds are packaged inside fully collapsible rooting “pillows” that help to keep the plants and the water they require firmly in place, which is crucial is a zero-gravity environment.

Now that the Veggie system has been proven effective, the next step for NASA is to optimize the fertilization, growth rate, and nutritional values of the plants. From there, the goal is to expand the size and variety of crops to provide the most benefits to the crew aboard the ISS. Foods high in antioxidants, such as tomatoes, peas, and radishes, are next on the list for NASA, which has already grown the crops on Earth using the Veggie system.

Sustainability is not just a trend here on Earth; it’s also becoming an integral part of humanity’s mission to further explore the solar system. With that in mind, NASA soon hopes to have their astronauts fully supporting themselves with their own supply of fresh and healthy space-grown food.

If that doesn’t make you want yell out “Hooray, science!” then I don’t know what will.

Feature photo courtesy of NASA.