NASA is taking the farm to fork concept very seriously as Expedition 44 crew members on Monday harvested and consumed romaine lettuce grown entirely in space.
The lettuce was grown with the help of the "Veggie" plant system on the International Space Station.
NASA's plant experiment, called Veg-01, is being used to study the in-orbit function and performance of the plant growth facility and its rooting "pillows," which contain the seeds.
The technology will be used for long-duration missions farther in the solar system and may also be used for astronauts' recreational gardening during deep space missions, NASA says.
This is the second harvest of leafy greens from the Veggie system. The first seed pillows were activated, watered and cared for in May 2014, and were returned to Florida for testing after 33 days of growth.
The second Veg-01 plant pillows were activated on July 8 and also grew for 33 days before being harvested.
The Veggie system, along with two sets of pillows containing the romaine seeds and one set of zinnias, was delivered to the station on the third cargo resupply mission by SpaceX in April 2014, meaning the lettuce harvested Monday grew from 15-month-old seeds.
How it works
Veggie is collapsible and expandable, and it features a flat panel light bank that includes red, blue and green LEDs for plant growth and crew observation. Orbital Technologies Corp. in Madison, Wis., developed the system.
Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy Space Station, said the vegetable growth with LEDs idea has been in existence at NASA since the late 1990s.
The purple/pinkish hue surrounding the plants in Veggie is the result of a combination of the red and blue lights, which by design emit more light than the green LEDs. Green LEDS were added so the plants look like edible food rather than "weird purple plants," NASA said.
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"Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth," Wheeler said. "They are probably the most efficient in terms of electrical power conversion. The green LEDs help to enhance the human visual perception of the plants, but they don't put out as much light as the reds and blues."
Wheeler, Dr. Gioia Massa, NASA payload scientist for Veggie, and Dr. Gary Stutte, previously investigated similar experiments to grow plants in the Habitat Demonstration Unit at NASA's desert test site near Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2010 and 2011.
Wheeler said Veggie will help NASA learn more about growing plants in controlled environment agriculture settings. Similar settings include vertical agriculture, which can use hydroponic methods and LEDs. This kind of system is popular in some Asian countries and beginning to grow in the U.S.
"There is evidence that supports fresh foods, such as tomatoes, blueberries and red lettuce are a good source of antioxidants. Having fresh food like these available in space could have a positive impact on people's moods and also could provide some protection against radiation in space," Wheeler said.
Food safety and benefits
After the first crop of lettuce was returned from the space station, Massa began working with a team of flight doctors and NASA safety representatives to get approval for the crew to eat the produce.
"Microbiological food safety analysis looks very good on the first Veg-01 crop of romaine lettuce," Massa said.
Besides nutritional benefits, Alexandra Whitmire, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, says her team is reviewing behavioral benefits.
"Future spaceflight missions could involve four to six crew members living in a confined space for an extended period of time, with limited communication," Whitmire said. "We recognize it will be important to provide training that will be effective and equip the crew with adequate countermeasures during their mission."
The countermeasures could include things like meaningful work, NASA says. Habitat-related modifications also could include plant life.
Whitmire said Earth studies have shown plants are associated with well-being and optimal performance. Plants potentially could serve as a countermeasure for long-duration exploration missions.
"Besides having the ability to grow and eat fresh food in space, there also may be a psychological benefit," Massa notes.
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, she said.
Having something green and growing--a little piece of Earth--to take care of when living and working in an extreme and stressful environment could have tremendous value and impact.
"The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario," Massa said.
Helping plant life on earth
The system also may have implications for improving growth and biomass production on Earth, thus benefiting the average citizen. Massa said many of the lessons NASA is learning with Veggie could be applied in urban plant factories and other agriculture settings where light is provided by electrical light and water conservation is practiced.
"We hope to increase the amount and type of crop in the future, and this will allow us to learn more about growing plants in microgravity," Massa said. "We have upcoming experiments that will look at the impacts of light quality on crop yield, nutrition and flavor, both on Earth and in space."
News source: NASA