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One Small Step For Man, One Giant Leaf For Mankind

Author Damien Wilde
Posted On 11th August 2015


Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have recently been tucking into some leafy greens, making history in the process. For many of us, lettuce may be an afterthought; a food items that we expect to find tucked into our salads and placed in our sandwiches. But in space it’s a different matter. Everything is highly regimented and well, lettuce is a little bit superfluous isn’t it? Not anymore.

“The astronauts have a pretty amazing diet, with a lot of different foods,” Gioia Massa, a NASA researcher said. “But they don’t get fresh vegetables often.”

But now vegetables could become commonplace on the space voyager’s menu. Well, that’s the hope at least.

The lettuce was served up as part of the Veg-01 study, an experiment which is of crucial significance to NASA’s planning of manned deep space exploratory missions.

“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,” Ms Massa continued.

“I think plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”

During the tests, the crew had to see if it was possible to grow and eat their own food, and lettuce was first on the agenda. The green-fingered astronauts were sent some ‘pillows’ last year and have spent months carefully cultivating the lettuces in a custom-built unit dubbed ‘VEGGIE’ which features a flat panel light bank comprising of red, blue and green LEDs.

“Having fresh food like these available in space could have a positive impact on people’s moods and could provide some protection against radiation in space,” commented Dr Ray Wheeler, who in part designed and built the space-friendly ‘greenhouse’.

VEGGIE’s base contains a mat – which allows roots to take hold – and a number of Kevlar-lined ‘pillows’ which contain seeds, fertiliser and cat-litter type substance which helps oxygen and water feed to the plants’ roots.

Aside providing the astronauts with some relaxing down time and scientific studies conduct, these space-grown greens will undoubtedly help improve the diets of those working aboard the ISS. At the moment, astronauts only get access to a limited supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, such as apples and carrots, when a supply ship docks at the station. “But the quantity is limited and must be consumed quickly.”

This isn’t the first time that plants have been successfully grown in outer space. The USSR sent some seeds on an early Sputnik mission and some turnips were successfully germinated in 1997 on board the defunct Mir space station. But this is the first time that food has been cultivated for human consumption, and is therefore extremely significant.

Members of Expedition 44 – which includes the vastly experienced duo of Gennady Padalka (RSA) and Scott Kelly (NASA) – have nibbled on half of this initial harvest, with the other half frozen and packed away, ready to be sent back to Earth for further scientific analysis.