Three crewmembers on the International Space Station(ISS) recently did something historic: They ate lettuce. Specifically red romaine lettuce. More specifically, red romaine lettuce that was grown on board.
Space has never been a place known for good eating. Certainly, the food now is better than it was in the pureed, shrink-wrapped, sucked-from-packets days of earlier missions. The ISS has hot water, a food heater and even a cappuccino maker, for instance.
But fresh fruits and vegetables, which take up room and spoil fast, are another matter. While apples and carrots are sometimes sent up on cargo ships, those supply runs are infrequent, and when a ship fails to arrive—something that’s happened three times in the past year—The veggie fast can go on and on.
During longer trips into deep space—particularly to Mars— The NASA knows that fresh produce is not only good for the crew’s physical health, but also for their mental well-being, giving them a comforting taste of home. That means growing the crops onboard.
To investigate how this could be done, the NASA partnered the ORBITEC, a Madison, Wisconsin-based technology company, to develop a unit known straightforwardly as Veggie. The unit is collapsible, and includes a flat panel of red, blue and green LEDs.
“The farther and longer humans go away from the Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits,” said Gioia Massa, Veggie’s payload scientist.
Nothing, however, goes onto the astronauts’ menu—or into their bodies—without being rigorously tested first. So in May of 2014, an earlier crew germinated the first plant pillows, grew them for 33 days, then plucked and froze them and shipped them home on a returning spacecraft in October.
Scientists on the ground certified them fit to eat, so Kelly germinated a new batch on July 7th and he and crewmates Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui sampled them on August 10. They pronounced them fine.