Growing vegetables in space is now a possibility. NASA successfully achieved this feat last month by harvesting the first set of red romaine lettuce in the International Space Station (ISS).
How did they grow lettuce in micro-gravity? NASA calls this method the “cut-and-come-again.” In this repetitive harvest technique, a part of a lettuce is harvested while the core of the plant and the remaining leaves are left intact. The partly-harvested plant is then allowed to grow for ten days, before being re-harvested.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough took on the role of a part-time space gardener, initiating project ‘Veggie experiment’ on the 25th of October. Although the seedlings were slow to grow initially due to excess water, Kimbrough was able to remove the excess moisture using a fan successfully. In the long term, NASA aims to increase the yield of plants grown in micro-gravity space. The main problem is that space as an environment makes it difficult for plants to extend their roots into the soil and absorb nutrients and water.
In 2015, NASA grew flowering plants using the veggie system. Plant growth was stimulated using a pillow consisting of seeds, soil, nutrition, and fertilizers. At present, scientists are testing the use of red and blue lights and their effect on the growth and taste of plants. Using data from both experiments, scientists are also in the process of testing a prototype known as the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The APH is similar to the Veggie growth system used in the ISS, but will also include one hundred and eighty sensors and an environment in which to grow plants and conduct experiments. The final habitat will be delivered to the ISS in 2017.
As astronauts prepare for longer duration space trips, NASA hopes to grow fresh produce in space, helping to reduce dependence on less palatable processed packed food. Besides the nutritional benefits, growing plants is likely to have a positive psychological impact on astronauts. Watching plants grow and smelling them is expected to have a calming effect on astronauts during space trips of a long duration.