This is the year “astronaut food” meets “rabbit food.” Finally, crew members living aboard the International Space Station can munch on fresh leafy greens as part of their regular diet, in addition to the airtight packages of freeze-dried meals that have sustained space explorers for decades. After several years in development and testing, NASA’s very own “space gardener” Shane Kimbrough has successfully harvested several batches of fresh lettuce, while carefully tending the tiny plants and troubleshooting their moisture and nutrient needs along the way.
Finding ways to grow safe, nutritious fresh vegetables in zero gravity has been a challenge, to put it mildly. During his historic 340-day mission aboard ISS, American astronaut Scott Kelly assisted in the early stages of NASA’s “Veggie” system, which was developed by Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) in Madison, Wisconsin, and tested at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before deploying to the ISS in mid-2014. ISS crew members feasted on freshly harvested leafy greens grown in space for the first time back in August 2015. The next challenge was to increase crop yields so that the system could produce enough fresh greens for the entire crew, which typically ranges from three to six astronauts but can occasionally rise as high as 10.
Related: Astronauts are munching on lettuce grown in space for the first time ever
Kimbrough oversees the operations of the Veg-03 experiment, the most recent phase of the ongoing project. The latest round began October 25 and involves six red romaine lettuce plants growing simultaneously for the first time. Because lettuce can be harvested (by cutting) and then regrow in about 10 days, it’s the perfect renewable crop for the space station, where resources and square footage are at a premium. The most recent harvest, which took place December 2, yielded a small amount of lettuce which was divided between crew member consumption and conservation for scientific evaluation. The ongoing experiment serves a dual purpose, in that ISS crew will gain access to fresh, nutritious greens to help balance their shelf-stable diet and NASA will be able to learn more about how various forms of life function in zero gravity environments.
Images via NASA