Astronauts on the ISS finally get to ‘eat local’
When a cargo ship arrives at the International Space Station (ISS), it’s likely to carry new experiments, new equipment, and materials required for maintenance of the vessel. For the astronauts, new ants are interesting, valve seals are useful, but nothing compares to the arrival of new, fresh food. The ISS relies on “shelf-stable” food for the most part to save freezer space and power, meaning freezing produce isn’t really an option. When new apples, bell peppers, or grapes arrive, it’s cause for a celebratory feast (partly driven by the fact that the food can’t be saved for later!) Resupply ships might be less salivating in the future though, as astronauts have just been able to eat some home-grown lettuce for the first time ever.
Planting the seeds of astro-agriculture
In 2014, Steve Swanson started the first experiments with produce grown in space. Plants were grown for 33 days before being harvested, frozen for 15 months and then returned to Earth for testing. Nobody wanted any surprises with the astronauts’ health, so many precautions were taken with the plants grown in micro-gravity. No problems were found, and a second round of romaine lettuce were grown in on-board greenhouses known as Veg-01 before finally being harvested on August 10th, 2015.
The lettuce was a success, although half crop will be again sent to Earth for analysis. Still, there are a plethora of accomplishments tied to what may be the most sophisticated and satisfying salad in human history. The plants started in special rooting “pillows,” negating the need to transport and manage heavy, dirty soil. They were then cultivated under red and blue LED lights, as those colors were the most energy efficient options that could still sustain photosynthesis. Green lighting was included in the Veg-01 module, but only so the lettuce would appear appetizing the the astronauts when they were ready to eat.
Space travel demands locavore lifestyles
Such details may seem silly, but for the long-term goal of space travel they’re really important. Future astronauts living in spaceships for months to years on end won’t be able to depend on supply ships as regularly as the ISS does. They will need to be self-sustaining, farming their own plants for many nutritional needs, as well as capturing anti-oxidants as a way to help cope with radiation exposure.
The psychological benefits to the astronauts are are two-fold. Eating the fresh plants is more pleasant than bagged food, and provide a sense of connection to Earth, which is the primary reason fresh fruit is currently flown to the ISS. Tending to the plants as they grow may also act as a stress reliever, as gardening satisfies human desires for meaningful accomplishments. Helping plants grow offers a tangible sense of progress that can then keep you and your compatriots alive. To say there’s a lot riding on this lettuce is kind of an understatement.