Early in 2014, NASA developed a Vegetable Production System (Veggie), which is displayed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Veggie is part of an experiment, which was sent to the International Space Station (ISS), to determine if plants can be grown in space and still be safe for human consumption. It is hoped that it will also provide recreation and relaxation for the ISS crew. NASA has been studying how to grow crops in space for over 30 years. The goal of the experiment is to maintain self-sustaining life support for the crew members. Growing plants in space will provide a positive effect on well-being and morale beyond the provision of fresh foods to supplement the crew’s diet, according to NASA specialists.
Veggie is expandable and collapsible, with a light bank panel that has blue, green, and red LEDs for general observation and optimum plant growth. According to the head of advanced life support activities, Ray Wheeler, NASA came up with the idea to use LEDs for plant growth in the ’90s, Wheeler explained that red and blue are the minimum required wavelengths for good plant growth. LED lights were chosen because they are most efficient in electrical power conversion. The green light was added for the crew’s benefit. Green enhances the plants’ visual perception so they look edible. The plants are odd-looking and purple without the green light, exclaimed Wheeler.
The Outredgeous red romaine lettuce was chosen from a variety of plants based on how easily it would grow, taste, and nutritional value. The other plants NASA considered were beets, spinach, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard, and Japanese Mizuna.
Some of the Goals of the Veggie Project Include
1. Ensure the hardware is effective for plant growth optimization.
2. The pillow planting concept has the right growth media, fertilizers, materials, plant species, and protocols to grow healthy nutritious plants.
3. Romaine lettuce was the test species, which is being grown in two different sizes of a calcined clay media called, arcillite.
4. The test is used to compare root zones of the different media sizes.
5. The root zones show scientists how much water the plants are using and calculate the roots’ distribution for future Veggie recommendations.
6. Samples inform the scientists of any anomalies in the plants’ growth; assisting with the study of food safety and microbial growth.
The pillows used to germinate seeds are for single use and reduce the chances of microbial contamination. A baseline of microbial data from the pillows and plants was collected on the ISS. According to flight surgeons, space microbiologists, and space food technologists, if the microbial levels remain low the crew will be able to eat the produce without having to sanitize it first. Otherwise, a space-related sanitation method will have to be developed and tested.
Veggie has its own facility on the space station, which will also be the location for future research concerning plant growth. Veggie rode to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft, which launched on top of a Falcon 9 rocket on April 14, 2014.
According to various crews, the plants from previous experiments were comforting and provided a connection to Earth. The crew appreciates the nurturing opportunities. The Veggie unit is capable of providing lighting, however, the cabin environment of the space station is used to maintain temperature control and is a source of carbon dioxide that will promote plant growth.
The Veggie experiment determines if, and what food is capable of being grown in space. If this is possible, it will improve upon long-duration spaceflight. Veggie is also used by scientists to understand how plants are able to sense and respond to gravity. The desire is that the experimentation with the Veggie facility and others like it, will eventually make a way for crew members to consume the space-grown produce during long-term missions to an asteroid in low-Earth orbit, or even Mars.
The volume of plants gained from the Veggie facility on the ISS will yield the largest volume of plant growth, thus far, due to previous size restrictions. This experiment leads to a greater understanding of plant growth and development in microgravity, which will allow for the improvement of biomass production on Earth.
Ralph Fritsche is a payload manager with the ISS and says this experiment is a challenge because due to the lack of gravity, vegetation does not know which direction is up or down, therefore, the roots started to grow in random directions. Scientists are learning how plants use gravity to grow in the proper direction. The starch grains in plant cells react to magnetic fields. Part of the Veggie research has been to introduce powerful magnets to direct the plants’ roots. If the experiment works, the roots will grow away from the magnets.
The magnet project is called, Biotube-Magnetophoretically Induced Curvature in Roots (Biotube-MICRO). This project was put together by the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. The Biotube-MICRO has three magnetic field chambers. Each of the magnetic chambers has eight cassettes that hold 10 Brassica rapa seeds, which is a rapidly growing plant, also called field mustard.
Resident crew members of the ISS will install the Biotube-MICRO in a payload rack. Once installed, all that needs to be done is to turn the device on and then run the startup sequence. The study is automated. Water will be injected into the seed cassettes so they will germinate. Cameras have been installed to record the plant’s growth. The pictures will be sent to Earth so scientists will be able to determine when to end the study. Once the study is ended, formaldehyde or RNAlater will be used to stop the plant’s growth and preserve the seedlings. Fritsche says a lot of plant growth is not necessary.
The first harvest took 33 days to grow in May of 2014. Those plants were harvested and sent to Earth in October, where the lettuce underwent rigorous food safety testing. In early August, the astronauts aboard the ISS sampled the romaine lettuce they grew. Before they were able to eat the lettuce, NASA required the taste testers to wipe down the leaves with citric acid-based sanitizer. They were granted the privilege from Mission Control to consume half of the harvest. The rest will be frozen until it can be scientifically tested on Earth. For the first time, Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren from NASA shared red romaine lettuce, grown in space, with Kimiya Yui from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). All three enjoyed the taste of their produce.
Kelly believed the romaine lettuce tasted like arugula. Lindgren said it was fresh. Yui said he enjoyed the lettuce. They saved some red romaine for their Russian crewmates who were on a spacewalk.
This was the first space garden taste test NASA has granted the astronauts. Russian cosmonauts tended their own space garden over 10 years ago. NASA’s space garden will flourish again.
Middle and high school students in South Florida are working with NASA and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, testing the many factors that could possibly affect the growth of plants. The students will be using equipment that provides conditions like those aboard the space station. NASA will gather the data collected from the students and Fairchild’s to best determine which plants will be grown in the ISS. Gioia Massa, a project scientist for NASA, believes the partnership with Fairchild may be able to help with the nourishment of astronauts for long-term missions, including the exploration of Mars.
By Jeanette Smith
Edited By Leigh Haugh
NASA: SpaceX’s Dragon Headed to Space Station to Create Astronaut Farmers
NASA: Space Station Study Seeks How Plants Sense ‘Up’ and ‘Down’
NASA: Veggie Hardware Validation Test
Christian Science Monitor: Astronauts Sample Space Lettuce for the First Time
Washington Post: Students Help NASA Choose Plants for Growing in Space
All Images Courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center Flickr Page – Creative Commons License