When reaching for fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks and meals most people on Earth do not think twice about the ease and convenience of having these foods readily available. Astronauts, however, do not have this luxury during space travel. Dining is very limited for astronauts completing space missions, whether it is short or long duration. Therefore, it is no surprise that fresh fruits and vegetables have been in demand among astronauts since space shuttle missions began.1
The history of providing fresh fruits and vegetables to astronauts began in April 1983 aboard the STS-6 mission. Items included apples, bananas, carrots, and celery. The fresh produce was loaded on the shuttle anywhere from 16-24 hours prior to launch. Before the fruits and vegetables embark on the greatest travel experience they are rinsed with 200 parts per million chlorine, air dried, and placed in food locker trays. This is to ensure food safety. Once in orbit the shelf life of these items is only two to three days due to lack of access to refrigeration.1
A major drawback that occurred from the fresh fruits and vegetables on board the space shuttle was the odor. As the produce breaks down, it creates odor! This is no different than here on Earth, but in the space shuttle the odor spreads through the spacecraft, which is not very large and it is harder to remove the odor. This caused many astronauts to feel nauseated once arriving into microgravity. This has led scientists to ponder questions relating to how to control the odor, but more importantly; what is the best way to provide fresh produce to the astronauts?
Growing plants in space can be the answer to providing nutritious foods to astronauts during space travel. Not only can growing plants in space provide nourishment to space travelers, it can provide other benefits as well. The crops can be beneficial in removing toxic carbon dioxide from the air within the spacecraft as well as produce oxygen that essential to life.2 As NASA continues to work on plans for long-duration missions to Mars and even back to the moon, growing plants in space has become an essential experiment to supplement to success of such missions.
In order to successfully grow various plants in space, scientists are researching how factors such as light, temperature, and carbon dioxide affect plant growth. Additionally, looking at various plant species is just as important.2 The challenge of such experiments become apparent when it requires more sophisticated means to grow plants. In space, astronauts cannot simply plant a seed in the ground as typically done so on Earth.
Crew members on board the International Space Station (ISS) have been growing plants and experimenting for years. This aids the scientists in developing procedures and methods that will guide astronauts in growing vegetables that are indeed safe to eat. Since 2002 a Lada greenhouse has been utilized for such experiments on the ISS with four major objectives. First, discover if the produce grown in space is safe to eat. Secondly, what microorganisms are growing on the plants and what can be done to address this. Third, how can astronauts clean and sanitize the produce once harvested? Lastly, how can production be optimized.3 These objectives and results from space-grown produce have been compared to results of ground tests in simulation experiments.
More recent experiments have resulted in the development of VEGGIE which is a deployable plant growth unit, containing pillows, for use on the ISS. This unit provides lighting as well as a nutrient supply to support the growth of a variety of plant species.4 The system was developed by Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) and contains a plant growth chamber with use of red, blue and green LED lights. The design is collapsible to allow ease in transport and expandable up to a one and half feet as the plants grow.5 “Outredgeous” lettuce is the focus of these experiments.
The experiment was carried out by planting the “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce seeds into the pillows and inserted into the chamber of the VEGGIE unit. Each pillow was provided with around 100 milliliters of water. The red, blue and green LED lights were activated. Each pillow contains a growth media that includes a controlled release fertilizer and a type of calcinated clay (similar to what is used on baseball fields!). This clay aids in increasing aeration and assist in plant growth. These same procedures were also activated by a “pseudo-naut” on Earth in a VEGGIE control chamber located in the International Space Station Environmental Simulator laboratory.6
The experiment will run for 28 days. Weekly photographs are taken of the plants. As plants grow pillows are thinned to allow one plant per pillow. In addition, microbial samples are taken to examine for microorganisms growing on the plants. At the end of the 28 days, plants are harvested, frozen, and stored. The plants will then return to Earth to be examined.6
Almost a year after the 28 day experiment, a report in August of 2015 indicated that fresh food grown from the VEGGIE units are finally on the menu for astronauts on board the ISS. Expedition 44, which includes astronaut Scott Kelly, are provided with the opportunity to taste the “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce! Astronauts will clean the lettuce with citric acid-based sanitizer wipes, which is food safe, prior to consuming. Astronauts will get to eat half of the space grown lettuce harvested and reserve the other half to be frozen on the station until it can be returned to Earth.7
August 10, 2015 will go down in history as the day NASA astronauts first consumed space grown lettuce while on board the ISS. Astronaut Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindren, and Kimiya Yui of Japan enjoyed their first bites of plain “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce. Kelly’s response was simple, but provided some confirmation in the success in stating “Tastes good.” The astronauts also tried the lettuce with small amounts of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Kelly shared the moment on Twitter by posting a video of the tasting and the caption “It was one small bite for man, one giant leaf for #NASAVEGGIE and our #JourneytoMars. #YearInSpace.”8
The success of the “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce opens several doors to NASA and its astronauts for long duration space missions. Proper nutrition is crucial to health of astronauts and the ability to provide fresh nutritious produce can help ensure astronauts remain healthy. Not only will the VEGGIE system create plentiful produce and benefits to NASA, the technology can be shared to urban plant factories and various agricultural settings on Earth. This provides ample opportunities to farmers, especially in locations where lighting and water conservation are challenges.7 The advances and plant varieties to be grown in space can only become more tasty and exciting in the future!
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Student Features: Fresh Fruits and Vegetables in Space. May 13, 2004. http://www.nasa.gov/audiences/forstudents/9-12/features/F_Fruits_and_Vegetables_Space_prt.htm. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Heiney, Anna. Farming for the Future. August 27, 2004. www.nasa.gov/missions/science/biofarming.html. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Meggs, Lori. Growing Plants and Vegetables in a Space Garden. June 15, 2010. www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/10-074.html. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Space Flight 101. Veggie (VEG)- ISS Plant Growth Facility. www.spaceflight101.com/iss/veggie. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Herridge, Linda. Veggie Will Expand Fresh Food Production on Space Station. April 10, 2014. Updated December 3, 2015. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/veggie. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Herridge, Linda. Veggie Plant Growth System Activated on International Space Station. May 16, 2014. Updated August 14, 2015. https://www.nasa.gov/content/veggie-plant-growth-system-activated-on-international-space-station. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Herridge, Linda. Meals Ready to Eat: Expedition 44 Crew Members Sample Leafy Greens Grown on Space Station. August 7, 2015. Updated August 13, 2015. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/meals_ready_to_eat. Accessed February 1, 2016.
- Pearlman, Robert Z. Astronauts Snack on Space-Grown Lettuce for First Time. August 10, 2015. www.space.com/30209-astronauts-eat-space-lettuce.html. Accessed February 1, 2016.