In what feels like a moment right out of Star Trek, members of the Expedition 44 crew on the International Space Station are about to eat the very first crops grown in space. Today, a batch of red romaine lettuce will be harvested from the “Veggie” plant growth system on the ISS orbiting laboratory to make a tasty space salad for the crew. Scientists hope that the fresh food will be not only more nutritious for the astronauts, but that it will also improve their moods and maybe even help protect from harmful radiation.
The leaves will be harvested and then cleaned by astronauts with citric-acid wipes. The harvest will then be divided in half, with one half to be eaten fresh and the other half packaged, frozen and shipped back to Earth for examination by scientists. The lettuce, which was planted on July 8 by astronaut Scott Kelly, will have spent 33 days growing inside “Veg-01.”
Veg-01 is equipped with a light bank of red, blue, and green LEDs. While the red and blue are essential light colors for photosynthesis, the green was put in purely for aesthetic reasons — to keep the lettuce it’s normal red/green color — not purple. “Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth,” said Ray Wheeler, lead scientist for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy Space Center. “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.”
While it’s obvious that a meal of lettuce won’t sustain the crew, the experiments go a long way toward helping scientists develop the type of food systems astronauts will need on future deep space missions — or a colony on Mars. A future space garden could be integrated into the future systems of a mission, helping to recycle oxygen and water, while absorbing CO2.
Besides, the psychological benefit of growing things could be essential to the mental health of even the most hearty astronauts, who can spend months or years inside “metal tubes.” “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,” NASA’s Gioia Massa said. “I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”
Images via NASA