Our dependence on food can be traced back to… well, the first time we ever ate! When we first ate/consumed any external ‘object’, human life began on Earth… officially.
Many of the food items we eat on a regular basis in our daily lives are derived from plants and their various parts. Suffice to say that plants have been essential for our survival on the ‘blue planet’. However, what about those handful of humans who happen to live (albeit for a short span of time) in space? We know that they take a lot of ‘food packets’ that take care of their daily energy requirements aboard a spaceship, but is it possible for them to grow plants in the spaceship itself and be self-sufficient for weeks on end?
Yes, plants can grow in space!
To those who didn’t know this already, plants CAN and are actually grown in space. In fact, astronauts onboard the ISS ate the first space-grown salad (red romaine lettuce) on August 10, 2015. And yes, they liked what they ate. (Note: When we talk about plants growing in space, we’re talking about an enclosed environment in space where humans actually live, i.e., the ISS or the International Space Station).
Growing a plant aboard the ISS
Growing a plant in space, even in a heavily controlled environment like the ISS, is no easy task. Growing healthy, wholesome and edible plants is difficult enough back here on Earth (plant enthusiasts, I’m talking to you!), so just imagine how uphill of a task it would be to grow those greens in conditions of microgravity and highly controlled conditions of soil, humidity, light and various gases.
In a way, just like humans, plants also become accustomed to the environmental conditions in which they live. Traditionally, roots grow and spread downwards due to the effect of gravity (roots absorb water and a number of vital nutrients from the ground), but in space, where the effect of gravity is negligible, things change… and do so quite drastically.
Roots grow in every direction in space. Other nutrients and water, which are essential for a plant’s growth, float all over the place! Can you imagine a plant floating in a spaceship, with its roots sticking out in every direction like the tentacles of a slimy sea creature surrounded by water and other nutrients?
Therefore, keeping this entire ‘system’ intact is very important. To achieve this, a few years ago, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson set up a special container named ‘Veggie’, which is specifically designed for ‘space-gardening’ on the ISS.
Veggie: The ‘gardening chamber’ aboard the ISS
Veggie fabricates a suitable artificial environment for plants to grow and flourish in conditions of weightlessness. It contains ‘plant pillows’, which are basically bags of controlled-release fertilizers and dirt to facilitate the plants’ growth. Small wicks are installed in the bags to soak up the water. Seeds are glued onto the wicks and oriented in a way that their roots grow unidirectionally (downward) and ‘push out’ of the bag. To ensure that plants grow the right way, (i.e., upward), LED lights shine above the plants, which give the shoots a sense of direction and provide light for photosynthesis (the process by which plants prepare their food).
The walls of the Veggie chamber are expandable; they are compressed when the plant is small, but can be expanded to make room as the plant continues to grow.
Here’s a short video released by NASA describing the ‘historic vegetable moment’ aboard the ISS:
The act of growing a plant in space is just one part of a more complex, bigger and wider concern. Astronaut farmers need to ensure that the plants grown in such artificial conditions are safe to consume, don’t have any side effects, provide more of an energy boost in relatively small quantities, and are pleasant to eat…. at least a little.
Space agencies all over the world are striving to develop more sophisticated methods and procedures to allow astronauts to safely grow and consume space-grown vegetables. In other words, you may not be able to grow potatoes aboard the ISS as impressively as Matt Damon did in The Martian, but in the event of an unexpected ‘food glitch’ aboard the ISS, at least you’ll have a backup – as long as you don’t mind getting your hands dirty!