ISS goes green: NASA astronauts to eat space-grown lettuce for first time

10 Aug 2015

The ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce grown aboard the ISS. Image via NASA

NASA astronauts can now add space farming to their repertoire of skills as, for the first time, they will begin chomping down on lettuce grown and harvested aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The NASA astronauts of Expedition 44, including the one-year resident Scott Kelly, will finally be able to taste the fruits of their labour today (10 August), having spent over a month working on the Veggie System.

The Veggie System is NASA’s first attempts to see whether it will be feasible for future deep space missions to grow and harvest vegetables grown in space so as to support the astronaut’s diet rather than shipping tonnes of food each time.

In particular, the experiment is part of NASA’s grand Journey to Mars programme and is being considered not just because of the food it will create, but also to provide recreational activities for astronauts during long space flights.

This first experiment, Veg-01, is being used to study the in-orbit function and performance of the plant growth facility and its rooting ‘pillows,’ which contain the seeds.

The plant that they have been working with over the last month is the Outredgeous red romaine lettuce and it will now be part of the astronauts’ dinner today.

NASA astronauts growhouse

A concept image of what a fully-scaled Veggie system could look like on a Mars base. Image via NASA

Feed populations on Earth?

The seeds have been aboard the ISS for 15 months to test the resilience of them to potential space-borne radiation, but the astronauts will now clean their crop with acidic sanitising wipes designed for food before eating them.

While they plan to eat half of their haul, the second half will be packaged and frozen on the station where it will later be sent back to Earth for scientific analysis.

Speaking of its potential, NASA’s lead developer of the Veggie System, Dr Ray Wheeler, said: “There is evidence that supports fresh foods, such as tomatoes, blueberries and red lettuce are a good source of antioxidants.

“Having fresh food like these available in space could have a positive impact on people’s moods and also could provide some protection against radiation in space.”

Developed by US-based company Orbitec, the Veggie System is also seen as having potential benefits for us here on Earth as a means of growing an abundant amount of vegetables to cater for growing populations.

NASA believes that it could be applied in urban plant factories and other agricultural settings where light is provided by electrical light and water conservation is practised.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic