U. S. Astronauts Ready To Taste Space Greenhouse Lettuce

by Mark Carreau
Aug 07, 2015

U. S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station are about to be part of a dietary first -- consuming red leaf lettuce grown and harvested aboard the orbiting science laboratory.

No,  it's not a breakthrough like New Horizons' spectacular photo rich dash by distant Pluto on July 14, nor the Dawn spacecraft's slow orbital descent toward the mysterious bright spots on the giant asteroid Ceres. It's certainly not of the same magnitude as the "seven minutes of terror" that marked the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars three years ago this week.

As a milestone, it's perhaps more like the European espresso coffee maker delivered to the six person orbiting laboratory earlier this year. Little by little space ships are becoming a little more "livable" with useful technologies and amenities that may help to bring future months to years-long explorations of deep space destinations possible.

Veggie, a modest plant growth chamber, made its way to the ISS early last year for its initial trial. Lettuce seeds imbedded in pillows comprised of a clay medium and water sprouted. The growth samples were collected by the station astronauts so that samples could be frozen and returned to Earth aboard a SpaceX Dragon re-supply mission earlier this year to be screened for microorganisms or contaminants that could be harmful if consumed.

NASA specialists recently signaled the all clear for nibbling.

"What's unique about this is that it's open air. As you can imagine there are things floating in the air," Paul Zamprelli, the business development director for Orbital Technologies Corp., of Madison, Wis., the company that developed the VEGGIE greenhouse, apprised a NASA TV segment on the topic. "The good news is that it's edible. We have a thumbs up from NASA."

Space researchers have worked for three decades on ways they might cultivate plants in space  to help recycle air and water as well as provide an important source of nutrition to offset mass intensive life support needs.  The work suggests that tending plants is also good for the mental health of astronauts in isolation.

The leap from Earth or orbit has not been all that smooth.

Veggie 3, the next evolution of the ISS green house that was going to branch out into the cultivation of cabbage seeds, was consumed in the June 28 Falcon 9 rocket explosion that brought a quick end to the seventh SpaceX commercial resupply mission.

It's a good thing the first ISS Veggie hardware included extra lettuce seeds in anticipation that scientists would find the plants safe to eat.

There are flower seeds as well. Studies of the flower pollination processes are expected to play a  role in the future introduction of fruit crops to space gardens.

Zamprelli reports Orbitec is already working with Dubai to demonstrate the possible terrestrial benefits of its plant growth technologies. Because of the high temperatures, Dubai imports much of the fruits and vegetables its citizens consume, he noted.

"We are working with them, taking the same type of units like Veggie and burying them in the sand in huge warehouses. They can then use the abundances of sun for solar energy. They have an abundance of  water," said Zamprelli. "It's a controlled environment, and they can start supplementing (their food supply) just like the space station is going to do."

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