In a rather science fictional moment, the Expedition 44 crew members on the International Space Station are about to eat the very first space crops. On Monday, a batch of red romaine lettuce will be harvested from the Veggie plant growth system on the ISS orbiting laboratory. Cosmically delicious.
It’ll probably be the most scientific harvest festival the human race has ever seen. The astronauts will carefully clean the greens with citric acid-based sanitizing wipes before dividing the spoils precisely in half. One half of the space bounty will be eaten fresh, while the other will be packaged, frozen, and shipped back to Earth for scientific analysis.
The lettuce seeds were planted on July 8th by astronaut Scott Kelly. By harvest, they’ll have spent 33 days growing inside Veg-01, a light bank that includes red, green and blue LEDs. Red and blue light are the two most important parts of the spectrum for photosynthesis. Green light is actually rather useless, but even in space, food aesthetics matter. To avoid producing crazy purple space plants, the engineers behind Veg-01 decided to add green to the mix.
Astronauts on the International Space Station are ready to sample their harvest of “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce from the Veggie plant growth system. Image via NASA
“Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth,” said Ray Wheeler, lead scientist for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy Space Center. “They are probably the most efficient in terms of electrical power conversion. 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.”
Next week’s lettuce harvest isn’t going to fill any bellies. But the significance of the event goes far beyond the extra dose of vitamin A. The success of Veg-01 is a step toward the renewable food systems we’ll need if and when we embark on crewed deep space missions, or try to set up a permanent human base on Mars. Space gardens could eventually be integrated into a habitat’s environmental controls, soaking up CO2 and recycling oxygen and water.
Artist’s concept of a future space garden on Mars. Image via NASA
What’s more, behavioral psychology has shown time and again that green things make people happy. And we’re gonna need all the help we can get keeping people confined to a metal tube for life sane.
“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,” NASA’s Gioia Massa said. “I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”
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Top image via NASA