A Space Oddity: Fresh Vegetables in Space?

Even astronauts can’t avoid eating their veggies. In the vacuum of space, the International Space Station orbits 408 kilometers (about 254 miles) from Earth. This station houses astronauts from all over the world and to stay healthy they have to exercise every day and eat their vitamins — sounds familiar, right? But the stakes are much higher in space where a lack of gravity and sunlight can lead to Vitamin C deficiencies, muscle loss, mental health issues, and more. For astronauts today, resupply missions send new food and materials about every 40 days or so, but the schedule varies a lot. For longer missions where resupply isn’t possible, the vitamins in food break down after some time and this causes major problems. 

While Mars has always been in the dreams of space connoisseurs and scientists alike, recently the red planet is making the news for being a potential planet of expedition and research. Mars One seeks to establish a human settlement on Mars and NASA has moved its sights from the Moon to Mars to ‘begin their next era of exploration’. And while it will take many, many steps to set foot on Mars, one of the challenges that a mission to our neighboring planet presents is to provide the basic necessities for human life on a spacecraft for an average of 162 days, which is the median time it could take if one were to travel in a straight line from Earth to Mars while the planets were at their closest. It’s also important to keep in mind that when the two planets are at their closest in orbit, they are still 56 million kilometers (about 35 million miles) apart. What is one of the top priorities? Keeping the crew healthy. And so the science of astrobotany is born.

Graphic via Thunderbolt Kids

There are three modes of research currently employed by NASA to study growing sustenance in space: The Vegetable Production System (Veggie), The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), and Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC). 

The Veggie calls the International Space Station home! This garden is big enough to hold six plants at a time. According to NASA journalist Anna Heiney in her article, “Veggie’s purpose is to help NASA study plant growth in microgravity while adding fresh food to the astronaut’s diet and enhancing happiness and well-being on the orbiting laboratory.” The plants utilize fertilizer and ‘clay-based pillows’ to balance the roots with air, nutrients, and water in a gravity-free environment. Also, LED lights simulate the cycle of the sun and emit light to inspire plant growth. The Veggie has been filled with “three types of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale, and zinnia flowers.” It sounds like a full meal! In the future, NASA hopes that the Veggie can be used for tomatoes and peppers, berries, beans, and more to protect the crew with antioxidant-rich food. 

Photo by NASA by Bryan Onate with the caption “Outredgeous red romaine lettuce plants grow inside the bellows of a prototype Veggie flight pillow. It will launch aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on NASA’s third Commercial Resupply Services mission targeted to launch April 14 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.” 

The International Space Station also houses the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) which uses a similar system to Veggie, but runs automatically and enclosed through the use of cameras and “more than 180 sensors that are in constant interactive contact with a team on the ground at Kennedy, so it doesn’t need much day-to-day care from the crew”. The plants are then freeze-dried and sent back to Earth to see how plants’ genes are changed by growing in space, especially how the plant structure changes in zero-gravity. 

Photo via NASA by Bill White; a prototype of the Advanced Planet Habitat (APH) in 2016 

Finally, the Biological Research Canisters (BRIC) are research experiments on the International Space Station smaller than a petri dish. They are used to see how different LEDs or the lack of gravity in space affect smaller plants like moss, algae, and cyanobacteria, which require sunlight to survive. However, this program is just getting started and will soon be certified for research! Initial research, however, predicts problems with plants being able to fight off infections and wilting under the stress of decreased oxygenation. Right now, BRIC is being used to simulate plant infections to see how plants can respond. 

Photo via Archive.org by NASA; “STS-77 pilot Curtis Brown works with the BRIC canisters” in the Endeavour in 1996.

Whether you watched hundreds of Star Trek episodes or whether you’re simply interested to see if kale tastes just as kale-y in space, we will all be waiting with bated breath to see what this new era of space research will bring. 

Header Photo via NASA by Cory Huston 

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!