Yesterday, Astronauts aboard the ISS became the first people to sample food grown in outer space. Captured as they “cheered” the red romaine lettuce leaves and took their first bites, the reviews for the space lettuce were resoundingly positive. “Awesome,” one remarked. “It tastes good.”
Space farming is a promising frontier for NASA for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s vital to be able to grow food if humans ever hope to execute a mission to Mars. It’s also, for the astronauts living a relatively rote and dull existence aboard the ISS, a bit of a psychological boost. Any life is welcome, but to create entirely new life is particularly uplifting.
NASA uses a system developed by Orbital Technologies called Veggie to grow the plants, and it’s nothing short of remarkable. Life begins with “pillows” containing seeds and nutrients, which activate when moistened. The system takes advantage of LED lights to fuel the plants while wasting little energy: Red and blue are the most efficient, while some green light makes the plants look less gross.
To save the astronauts additional time, the lettuce and other plants are equipped with sensors that monitor leaf thickness and water levels. When the plants need watering, the system alerts the astronauts. As an additional benefit on a vessel where water is at a premium, the system results in 25%-45% less wasted water.
Previous efforts to grow food in space have yielded technology we use on Earth today. Scrubbers developed to remove the ethylene gas given off by plants are also handy for removing airborne pollution and bacteria, and are now used everywhere from supermarkets to hospitals.
Whether or not humans ever make it to Mars remains in question, but if they do, plants will surely be an important factor. Between the nutrition, natural oxygen and psychological benefits, space produce really is the future.