Astronauts Eat Food Grown in Space for First Time

By Lisa Raffensperger | August 10, 2015 1:54 pm
"Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce grown on the ISS. Credit: NASA

“Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce grown on the ISS. Credit: NASA

A plain bite of lettuce was “awesome,” astronauts aboard the International Space Station concurred. It helped that it was a rare bite of fresh vegetable. And it was also a tasty milestone in spaceflight history: the first time astronauts ate food grown and harvested in space.

The garden, called Veggie, is part of NASA’s research into food provision for a future manned mission to Mars.

Space Salad

An earlier crop of romaine lettuce was grown last year and returned to earth for safety analysis in October 2014. It passed the test, and now astronauts are growing both lettuce and zinnias under Veggie’s LED lights. (The pinkish light is the combination of red and blue LEDs, which are more efficient in driving plant growth.)

The red lettuce was chosen, NASA said on the ISS Facebook page, “because it grows well, tastes good, and has low natural microbial levels. In addition, red crops have higher levels of antioxidants, which could help astronauts stay healthy.”

The flowers are partly of interest to see how they pollinate in zero gravity, which will be important to future attempts to grow fruit, said Paul Zamprelli of Orbitec, the company that developed the Veggie greenhouse.

The astronauts cleaned the greens before eating them and they will eat half the harvest, saving the other half to be sent back to Earth for analysis.

Small cabbage and tomatoes are next in the greenhouse’s sights, NASA said on Facebook. Longer-term, they’ve got even tastier things in mind:

If we want beer: yes to the grains. Leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are after vegetables. Then soybeans and grains. Grains need more equipment – we are on a stepping stone path to grains.

Gardening Bliss

Though beer would no doubt make future Mars crew happy, NASA says the sheer act of gardening is itself a psychological benefit on long missions.

“Besides having the ability to grow and eat fresh food in space, there also may be a psychological benefit,” said Gioia Massa, NASA payload scientist for Veggie. “The crew does get some fresh fruits or vegetables, such as carrots or apples, when a supply ship arrives at the space station. But the quantity is limited and must be consumed quickly.”

What might those meals look like? Check out our feature article of the future of food on Mars.

 

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  • Mike Richardson

    This is a good first start, but conditions on Mars will be different, where there is gravity (albeit about 38% of Earth’s gravity), and where radiation reaching the surface will be higher than on Earth or even in orbit (no global magnetic field and a thin atmosphere). Also, any sizable colony in space will rotate for artificial gravity, so growing food in zero gravity only makes sense if it is more productive than growing it in the rotating sections of a colony. It should be interesting to see if zero g or artificial gravity is better for agriculture, but we’ll first need to develop rotating habitats to test out their feasibility. The idea’s been around for more than a century, ad was refined during the 1970’s, but so far, no one’s built a space station according to these plans. Regardless of what shape future habitation beyond Earth takes, though, it looks as though fresh salad will be on the menu.

    • El Cid

      Good points. Do you think the plants will be larger but weaker on Mars? And root vegetables a better bet?

      • Mike Richardson

        Root vegetables would be less susceptible to radiation damage in the edible portions, though the leaves would still be exposed. The best solution might just be to cover the greenhouses in a layer of soil, then use fiber optics or solar powered lighting to channel the appropriate level of and wavelengths of light to the plants. They’d be protected from excessive UV radiation and cosmic rays, while still receiving enough light to flourish. Plus, Mars has a day/night cycle that’s only a few minutes shorter than Earth’s, so it shouldn’t be hard for our plants to adapt, given appropriate water and nutrients. You could also skip the need for lighting in a growth chamber for mushrooms, which would provide additional protein without the need for specialized lights.

        • El Cid

          So you think it is the UV that is hazardous. Plants however have those chlorophyll and carotene shields/filters built it. They would probably get up graded on Mars.

          Plants do that on Earth all the time, depending on the severity of exposure to sunlight and the elemental stress, lack of water, desert and so on. anyway.

          Is photosynthesis a function of UV or only of the visible light spectrum?

          In my opinion the whole process of photosynthesis can be bypassed. I do recall some work has been done on it. On going I think.

          Thanks for your input.
          Regards.

          • Maia

            Bypassing photosynthesis and still growing green plants?? Could you please provide a link or clue to your source on this?

          • Lucy Nesse

            Yes, I too would like further info on how photosynthesis can be passed over and still get green leaves…..thanks. Also, i just finished the book The Martian. Were the planting/harvesting references made in the book accurate?

  • El Cid

    Growing it in space, without gravity, was the hard part. But the fresh salad was worth it to these adventurers and researchers.

    Growing tomatoes to fruition will be considerably more difficult. And far more rewarding. If Man is to manage Mars growing food will have to be top priority, comparable to a reliable energy source.

  • Catia Hirsch

    If you add Zeolite powder to the soil or water, whatever your growing medium is, it will filter out any radiation that might be getting into the food. I read somewhere that you are making Zeolite and using it to get radiation out of your bodies. Amazing stuff and I have been putting it in my soil, garden, now for three years.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    Speaking of astronauts staying healthy, food will not be enough; from the July 2015 PopSci article, “The microbes in your home could save your life”:

    “For astronauts, the International Space Station (ISS) is like living inside a giant antibiotic pill. HEPA filters remove airborne germs, surfaces deter bacterial growth, and iodine and biocidal nano-silver cull microbes from water. “Everything is sterilized, except for the humans,” says Hernan Lorenzi of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which has been studying the ISS for four years.

    As a result, the microbial ecosystem in the station is made up mostly of the organisms the astronauts themselves shed daily. There are no Amazon deliveries, no windows to crack—no influx of fresh microbes to balance the ecosystem. And so Lorenzi’s team is sampling the microbiome of astronauts to see how it changes after a stint in the station. A loss of gut diversity, he says, correlates with many diseases and could raise concerns for long-term space travel. Astronauts often have impaired immunity, and “if you lose your gut microflora,” Lorenzi says, “the immune system goes dormant.” It takes a space vacation. “Can you imagine a trip to Mars?” asks Eisen. “They’ve gotta be screwed.”

    Food for thought…

    • Mike Richardson

      All the more reason to make these long-duration spacecraft and habitats more like a farm than a hospital. As people spend longer periods of time off the Earth, they’ll need to learn how to recreate the kind of natural systems our bodies evolved and adapted to on the home world. Experimental closed ecologies like the Biosphere 2 project show some of the potential pitfalls awaiting colonists if they don’t develop a good working knowledge of positive and negative environmental feedbacks. As your article pointed out, unlike Biosphere 2, the crew of these missions won’t be able to open the window for fresh air if things start to fail.

      • Overburdened_Planet

        Research into fecal transplants shows we are still not familiar enough with all of the microbes that are beneficial.

        But some day, supplementation will replace transplantation, as we do with pre- and probiotics.

        And I can imagine astronauts making yogurt and other fermented foods.

        Spacegurt. 😉

        Yum.

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