Astronauts to eat first food grown in space

Lettuce grown within the Veggie experiment on the ISS. Image courtesy of Nasa.
Lettuce grown within the Veggie experiment on the ISS. Image courtesy of Nasa.

A team of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will today become the first people to eat food grown in space.

The astronauts plan to harvest lettuce grown on board the ISS as part of Nasa’s ‘Veggie’ plant growth experiment.

Several red lettuce plants from the ‘Outredgeous’ strain had been grown within a specialised chamber over the course of 33 days.

While these plants only required red and blue light to grow, the designers of the system also added green light to the mix, in order to improve the aesthetics of the plants.

Lead for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy, Dr Ray Wheeler commented: “Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth.

“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,”

Astronauts will have to first clean the plants with citric acid based sanitising wipes before they are able to consume the food.

In addition, the ISS crew will need to package half of the crop for a return to Earth, where it will be analysed by scientists.

While the fresh lettuce will provide a small nutrient boost for the astronauts, the primary goal for the experiment is to demonstrate the ability of astronauts to grow food aboard spacecraft.

The system serves as a proof of concept for a much larger food production module designed as part of Nasa’s ‘Journey to Mars’ roadmap.

NASA payload scientist for the Veggie experiment, Dr Gioia Massa said: “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.

“I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”

Aside from nutrition, Nasa believes that plants may improve the psychological well-being of astronauts on long missions.

“The Veggie experiment is currently the only experiment we are supporting which involves evaluating the effects of plant life on humans in space,” said Alexandra Whitmire, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Nasa believes that having “a little piece of Earth” aboard the spacecraft could reduce overall stress levels amongst the crew.