The crew members on board the International Space Station (ISS) are set to eat fresh food grown in the microgravity environment of space for the first time. This pioneering feat might help astronauts on long-duration space missions like Mars.
Expedition 44 crew members are ready to sample the fruits of their labor after harvesting a crop of 'Outredgeous' red romaine lettuce from the 'veggie plant' growth system on the orbiting laboratory. They will clean the leafy greens with citric acid-based, food safe sanitizing wipes before consuming them. The astronauts will eat half of the space bounty, setting aside the other half to be packaged and frozen on the station until it can be returned to Earth for scientific analysis.
Fresh foods such as tomatoes, blueberries and red lettuce are a good source of antioxidants. Dr. Ray Wheeler, head of advanced life support activities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said, "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."
NASA's plant experiment, called Veg-01, is being used to study the in-orbit function and performance of plant growth facility and its rooting 'pillows' which contain the seeds. The first 'pillows' were activated, watered and cared for by Expedition 39 flight engineer Steve Swanson in May 2014. After 33 days of growth, those plants were harvested and returned to Earth in October 2014. At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the plants underwent a food safety analysis. The second 'Veg-01 plant pillows' were activated by Kelly on July 8, 2015, and grew again for 33 days before being harvested. The veggie unit features a flat panel light bank that includes red, blue and green LEDs for plant growth.
Dr. Wheeler said, "Using LED lights to grow plants was an idea that originated with NASA as far back as the late 1990s." Besides the nutritional benefits, growing fresh plants in space may also provide a psychological benefit to astronauts. The farther and longer astronauts go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits.
Dr. Gioia Massa, payload scientist for Veggie system at Kennedy, said, "I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario."
The Veggie unit could also be used by astronauts for recreational gardening activities during deeper space missions.