Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why Astronauts Growing Lettuce in Space is a VERY Big Deal

Every day aboard the International Space Station astronauts take a quick lunch break when they find a few minutes free between the running of several hundred scientific experiments, spacewalk preparations or physical exercise. On August 10, the dish of the day was lettuce. However, this was no ordinary lettuce. This was space-grown, red romaine lettuce, and it's a really, really big deal!

While two of their Russian colleagues were busy conducting a spacewalk outside the station, flight engineers Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui were busy inside the orbiting complex harvesting the space grown produce for consumption as part of the NASA "Veggie" plant growth experiment. The trio then got the go ahead from Mission Control in Houston to eat the lettuce, marking the first time that astronauts were able to eat food that had been grown in the microgravity environment found in low-Earth orbit.
Astronaut Kjell Lindgren with the Veggie experiment
credit: NASA

Expedition 44 flight engineer and ISS One Year Crew member Scott Kelly of NASA wished his crew mates "Bon appetite" before all three took a bite out of the grown in space food. "It tastes good. It tastes kind of like arugula." 

Smiling from ear to ear, the three astroanuts spiced things up a bit by adding sides of olive oil and vinegar. The seeds were activated by Kelly on July 8 and harvested for 33 days. Half of all the lettuce leaves were consumed by the crew, while the other half will be returned to Earth for further analysis.

But why is growing food in space important?

Well, it's all because NASA is on a bold mission to send humans to Mars, on what the space agency calls its "Journey to Mars." On average Mars is 225 million kilometers from Earth, so a manned mission to the red planet can last anywhere between two to three years depending on how long those first Martian explorers are scheduled to remain on the surface.

This means that astronauts on missions to the fourth rock from the Sun would not be able to depend on a regular supply of cargo vehicles carrying food, water and equipment, just as they do aboard the space station. The only option for astronauts would for them to be completely self sufficient in growing their own food and recycling their own water.

Not only will NASA's Veggie experiment will allow astronauts to plant their own seeds, harvest them and eat them roughly a month later, but it is also hoped that recreational gardening in space will have positive psychological effects for the astonauts sent on these long duration space missions.

Alexandra Whitmire, a scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston is working to find out the effect on the human psyche as a result of growing food in space. Whitmire is a Behavioral Health and Performance Research scientist for NASA's Human Research Program. Her team supports research related to reducing psychological risks on a Mars mission.
Artist's impression of a food growth habitation module
on the surface of Mars credit:  NASA

"The Veggie experiment is currently the only experiment we are supporting which involves evaluating the effects of plant life on humans in space," Whitmire said.

For this first batch of red romaine lettuce consumed on August 10, red, blue and green LEDs were used to provide a light and growth source for the seeds to germinate. NASA hopes to increase the number of plants grown on station in the near future and will also analyse the effect that different light waves have on the growth of plant seeds.

Even though a manned mission to Mars is at least another twenty years away, there's one thing for sure- mankind, in eating an out of this world salad that was grown aboard the International Space Station has just taken yet another small step to fulfilling the age old dream of expanding humanity's presence in the solar system by sending the first people to Mars.

"This payload, and having the ability to grow your own food, is a big step in that direction," said Kelly, who along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, is nearly half way into a year-long expedition to the international outpost.

That's one small step for veggies, one giant leap for mankind!

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