Photograph by Mary Beth Albright
Read Caption
Growing seeds in space takes special blue and red lights and frequent watering.
Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

Gardening in Space Gets Ready for Lift-Off

Feeding space colonoists farm-fresh produce is one step closer to reality, now that NASA’s Veg-01 experiment results are in from the International Space Station, showing resounding success with red lettuce. Locavore astronauts are readying for their second space-farm-to-fork mission.

Last month 100 finalists were named out of 200,000 applicants to be Earth’s first inhabitants of Mars when the one-way ship launches for the red planet just ten years from now. It’s one of those things you keep hearing about but you think will never happen, like self-driving cars (now with bumpers on the outside, to protect pedestrians, yikes) or your 40th birthday. But it’s almost here, and we will need to feed those people.

Fortunately, a lot of scientists spend their days thinking about humans inhabiting Mars, specifically how to not have to heave every bit of food off of Earth, hurling it 140 million miles to a planet with no liquid water. The same reasons for eating local in your neighborhood apply on Mars—less fossil fuels, better taste, higher nutrient value. We thought feeding 9 billion people by 2050 down here on Earth was going to be a challenge? Think about the hurdles and benefits to being a locavore astronaut.

Last year as part of my food technology series I reported on NASA’s then-upcoming Veg-01 experiment to grow food on the International Space Station. Researchers hoped that Veg-01’s findings would help future inhabitants of other planets grow food in conditions that don’t provide what plants need to grow (oxygen, water, and light, to name a few). While visiting Kennedy Space Center last week, I visited a Veg-01 lab and spoke with Gioia Massa, NASA project scientist, about Veg-01’s results and implications, which are both promising and wide-reaching.

A quick refresher: Astronaut Dr. Steven Swanson was in charge of the project on the Space Station, growing red romaine lettuce. Space is precious in space, so the whole setup—a small box with clear, flexible sides—had to have a low profile, low mass and use little energy. Inside, plant “pillows” contain a dirt-like growing material (the brown grainy stuff used for golf courses and baseball fields) studded with gray fertilizer pellets that slowly release nutrients plants need to grow.

The box’s ceiling houses red and blue grow lights (the two colors most critical for plants to thrive) and a few green lights just to make the plants look green (otherwise the plants would just appear brown, their natural colors washed out by all the red and blue). “One of the intangibles of having plants in space is having a living piece of Earth with you,” says Massa, so the green lights are a nice touch. Fans circulate the air inside the box, which is the same that the astronauts breathe. The walls of the box simply keep the interior a bit humid for the plants.

In space, water makes a ball rather than dispersing so the plants must be watered through drip tubes that are inserted into the growing material. The drip tubes are hooked up to one main large water pouch, so the astronaut gardener refills the main water bag every few days, rather than watering the plants every day. Although a side benefit to Veg-01 was expected to be the recreation and relaxation associated with gardening (well, successful gardening), so an some astronauts might like to water every day.

In case you’re wondering (I was), astronauts stick their feet under cords to hold themselves down; that’s how they stay upright in videos like these. Astronauts actually lose calluses on the bottoms of their feet and develop calluses on the tops of their feet when in space for months at a time, because they are strapped down rather than pulled down to the ground by gravity.

Swanson started the project on May 9 of last year. He performed that most painstaking of all garden tasks, thinning, selecting the seeds that had the best chance of growing at the same rate as other seeds. After 33 days, Swanson harvested the lettuce to much astronaut Instagramming. Everyone thought they were the first plants ever on the Space Station until Russian astronaut and Instagram phenom Oleg Artemyev bounced in with his previously hidden sprouting-onion. Unbeknownst to officials, he brought it on board to jazz up his astronaut food, chopping up the green parts to sprinkle on everything.

Oleg’s onion, his need for some freshness on the Space Statoin, is a good example of why NASA puts concentrated efforts into food development. Even with more than 200 NASA-developed meals to choose from, with astronauts being up there for months at a time and Mars One flyers never coming back, avoiding boredom is one huge reason farming is a good idea. Variety through farming is just one option, of course—other projects NASA is testing include 3D printers.

When Artemyev approached with his onion, Swanson joked that they had everything they needed to make a salad. Alas, eating the lettuce was not to be. Although it may seem ruthlessly cruel to ask astronauts to grow and harvest—but not eat—fresh vegetables, the lettuce had to be flown back to earth for testing and to be declared safe to consume. “It’s hard to wash your hands in space, and even harder to wash your lettuce, ” explains Massa. Being sick with E. coli or salmonella in space is probably even worse than being sick on Earth.

Swanson froze the lettuce and sent it back to Earth on SpaceX in late October. The lettuce was found safe, and NASA is now seeking permission for astronauts to eat from their next harvest; more red romaine seed pillows are already on board. Hopefully going up on SpaceX 7 (tentatively scheduled for the second half of 2015) or 8: pillows with Chinese cabbage seeds, chosen for ease of growth and from extensive taste testing with Johnson Space Center’s Advanced Food Technology Project.

The implications of Veg-01 stretch far beyond—or rather, below—Mars. Back here on Earth, developing technology for urban farming in small spaces could make tremendous strides in feeding 9 billion by 2015.

Later this week: The future of food in space: farming on Mars.