Strapping back in after a nice, long summer break and the biggest news in the food system today? First food grown in space that has been eaten in space.
Fresh food grown in the microgravity environment of space officially is on the menu for the first time for NASA astronauts on the International Space Station. Expedition 44 crew members, including NASA’s one-year astronaut Scott Kelly, are ready to sample the fruits of their labor after harvesting a crop of “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce Monday, Aug. 10, from the Veggie plant growth system on the nation’s orbiting laboratory.
The astronauts will clean the leafy greens with citric acid-based, food safe sanitizing wipes before consuming them. They will eat half of the space bounty, setting aside the other half to be packaged and frozen on the station until it can be returned to Earth for scientific analysis.
NASA’s plant experiment, called 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 collapsible and expandable Veggie unit features a flat panel light bank that includes red, blue and green LEDs for plant growth and crew observation. Using LED lights to grow plants was an idea that originated with NASA as far back as the late 1990s, according to Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy.
Wheeler worked with engineers and collaborators to help develop the Veggie unit from a Small Business Innovative Research project with ORBITEC. Dr. Gioia Massa is the NASA payload scientist for Veggie at Kennedy. Massa and others worked to get the flight unit developed and certified for use on the space station. The purple/pinkish hue surrounding the plants in Veggie is the result of a combination of the red and blue lights, which by design emit more light than the green LEDs. Green LEDS were added so the plants look like edible food rather than weird purple plants.
“Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth,” Wheeler said. “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.”
Wheeler, Massa and Dr. Gary Stutte, all from Kennedy, previously investigated similar experiments to grow plants in the Habitat Demonstration Unit at NASA’s desert test site near Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2010 and 2011. Wheeler said Veggie will help NASA learn more about growing plants in controlled environment agriculture settings. Similar settings include vertical agriculture, which refers to stacking up shelves of plants that are grown hydroponically and then using electric light sources like red and blue LEDs. This kind of system is popular in some Asian countries and beginning to grow in the U.S.
“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,” Wheeler said.
After the first crop of lettuce was returned from the space station, Massa began working with a team of flight doctors and NASA safety representatives to get approval for the crew to eat the produce.
“Microbiological food safety analysis looks very good on the first Veg-01 crop of romaine lettuce,” Massa said.
Besides the nutritional benefits, could growing fresh produce in space also provide a psychological benefit? Alexandra Whitmire, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston is involved in research to answer that question.
Whitmire is the Behavioral Health and Performance Research scientist for NASA’s Human Research Program. Her team supports research related to reducing psychological risks on a Mars mission.
“The Veggie experiment is currently the only experiment we are supporting which involves evaluating the effects of plant life on humans in space,” Whitmire said.
Now that’s VERTICAL FARMING. </rimshot>