For freshly grown produce, space is truly the final frontier.
But even astronauts will soon be able to abide by their mothers’ exhortations to eat more veggies.
Following the much-celebrated harvest of a head of romaine lettuce aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015, astronauts’ vacuum-packed vittles may be kicked up a notch as early as 2021 with the addition of space-grown beans. More salad fixings are also in the cards. After that? The galaxy’s the limit. [Plants in Space: Photos by Gardening Astronauts]
“The dream of every astronaut is to be able to eat fresh food like strawberries, cherry tomatoes or anything that’s really flavorful,” Silje Wolff, a plant physiologist at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space (CIRiS) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), said in a statement. “Someday that will certainly be possible. We envision a greenhouse with several varieties of vegetables.”
Wolff recently wrapped up an experiment where lettuce grew in space in specialized planters that regulate all the water, nutrients, gas and air the plants need.
Though she used artificial soil derived from lava rock as a substrate, Wolff says the goal is for the plants to grow directly in water infused with life-sustaining nutrients. In space, she noted, all the water and food must be recovered, which means that plant fertilization needs to be “as precise as possible.”
Nutritional benefits aside, raising living crops inside a sterile, white-walled environment like a space station can provide physiological comfort, too. Astronauts often struggle with their appetites, leading to weight loss, Wolff said.
“Addressing the psychological aspect of eating something fresh is one of our goals,” she said. “Vacuum-packed food doesn’t really remind you of food. Having something fresh that triggers the appetite and the right receptors in the brain is important.”