Intrepid farmers are already growing veggies in surprising places, including rooftops, warehouses, and even on highway billboards. But now leafy greens have gone where no greens have gone before: outer space.
NASA announced this week that astronauts aboard the International Space Station are going to dine on the first fresh veggies grown in microgravity. The astronaut crew, including NASA’s Scott Kelly, harvested a crop of red romaine lettuce on Monday, and they’ll eat half while freezing the rest for later scientific analysis.
Growing plants on a space mission could help nourish astronauts both physically and mentally during a future, much longer journey to Mars. The experiment, called Veg-01, is testing the performance or the “Veggie” plant growth system and its rooting “pillows,” which contain seeds. The first crop was harvested in May 2014, but was sent back to Earth for testing to make sure it was safe to eat. This second crop, which took 33 days to grow, will now be consumed by the astronauts.
Developed by a Wisconsin company called ORBITEC, the Veggie unit itself features a red, blue, and green LED lights to grow the plants, as well as a collapsible and expandable design to save space. The setup mirrors similar indoor agriculture projects and vertical farms that are becoming increasingly popular on Earth.
Being able to grow fruits and vegetables could help astronauts to Mars gain nourishment and antioxidants that protect from radiation. But tending a garden could also become a useful hobby, helping astronauts fight the boredom that will eventually set in on a months-long journey in a confined space. NASA is also simultaneously undertaking experiments on how astronauts could cook their own meals on long journeys and even stir fry in space. But at least raw vegetables are a good start.