Imagine this for a tease: You spend an entire month on the International Space Station, hundreds of miles away from the nearest forest or ocean or farm. Fresh food is shuttled up to the station in severely limited quantities because it's simply too expensive to transport. The only splash of life and color around you is a lonely sprout of lettuce, growing from sprout to blossoming plant in 28 days. After 28 days, it looks as wonderful and appetizing as a head of lettuce you'd buy at a produce stand and turn into a fresh salad. But NASA says you can't eat it. It's for science.
That's exactly what NASA's astronauts will be going through a few months from now, but for a good cause. Modern Farmer's story on space farming does point out that NASA astronauts aren't allowed to eat plants grown in space due to strict microbe standards, even though the plants are likely housing no more bacteria than they naturally would when growing on Earth. Russian astronauts, on their side of the International Space Station, can eat what they grow.
Even with NASA's strict standards, growing plants in space is incredibly important. It costs $10,000 per pound to ship food to the station, which means calorie-dense foods take priority. And if we're ever going to establish long-term colonies on the moon or Mars, regular food shipments won't be practical. We'll have to grow it. A new space farming initiative from NASA, appropriately nicknamed Veggie, kicks off this December. It may well be the future of space-based agriculture.
Modern Farmer writes: "NASA plans to launch a set of Kevlar pillow-packs, filled with a material akin to kitty litter, functioning as planters for six romaine lettuce plants. The burgundy-hued lettuce (NASA favors the “Outredgeous” strain) will be grown under bright-pink LED lights, ready to harvest after just 28 days.
NASA astronauts aren't allowed to eat plants grown in space due to strict microbe standards.
"NASA has a long history of testing plant growth in space, but the goals have been largely academic. Experiments have included figuring out the effects of zero-gravity on plant growth, testing quick-grow sprouts on shuttle missions and assessing the viability of different kinds of artificial light. But VEGGIE is NASA’s first attempt to grow produce that could actually sustain space travelers."
Lettuce belongs to the first phase of vegetables NASA plants to test--quick to grow, and low-maintenance. The first phase of veggies will also be edible as soon as they're finished growing. Second phase vegetables would be plants like potatoes, which aren't very tasy raw, and third phase vegetables would require far more growing and processing time, like wheat or rice.
The real heart of the Veggie program, though, is its psychological benefits.
Caring for plants, whether on Earth or in space, can be soothing, reduce stress and depression, and more. Astronauts, like prison inmates, stand to benefit from a splash of life in their enclosed spaces. This has already been proven in space, since last year, astronaut Don Pettit grew up a zucchini--and wrote a blog from the vegetable's perspective--on the ISS.
Writes Modern Farmer: "During [his] six-month stay Pettit brought the space zucchini up with “two new crewmates” — broccoli and sunflower plants — as a personal project. He didn’t have fancy equipment, and only a little soil.
"He gave the plants sun by shuttling them between space station windows, and grew them in a plastic bag, feeding them a liquid made from composted food scraps. The crew never tried eating the plants; Pettit jokes it would have felt like cannibalism.
'We considered them crew members,' he says. 'It was delightful to have those plants around, to feel the little hairs on a leaf tickle your nose, to see that sunflower in full bloom. It changed our whole experience.' "