Sending fresh produce to the International Space Station (ISS) is not as easy as bringing it home to the dinner table. Astronauts often have to consume the supply pretty quickly as it arrives; otherwise, it will spoil in only a few days.
Fortunately, this may no longer be a problem soon. NASA had recently launched a program, called Veg-1, which aims to clear one of the first objectives of real, long-duration space flight: crop growth. The first seeds were planted last year in May 2014, and earlier this month, the astronauts enjoyed their very first bountiful harvest of perfectly (approved) edible lettuce in space.
So, first things first, how does space veggies taste like? Since the lettuce was grown in an unusual environment of microgravity high above Earth, it should taste different, right? Most reports claimed that an astronaut, Kjell Lindgren, described the taste of red romaine lettuce as “like arugula.” The lettuce was first treated with a preliminary cleaning solution, using citric, acid-based sanitizing wipes, before consumption, which might probably have affected the taste a bit. The astronauts even tried adding virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which was also reported to have made the lettuce taste even better.
As for how exactly the produce was grown, the Veg-01 (which was located at the far end of the station at ESA’s Columbus laboratory) was installed primarily with LED lighting and several plant beds where the red romaine lettuce seeds were sown. The module then had instruments and tools that facilitated a controlled provision of nutrients and water. It was a project that represented the world space program’s first efforts in developing future bioregenerative food production systems, to be used as a sustainability tool for future missions in deep space.
In fact, the concept of growing crops in space has been one of the basic staples of deep space exploration. Late 20th-century Russian space experiments aboard the MIR station, for instance, have already played around with the idea of growing edible crops in space though no official food testing was ever seen or announced. Since the harsh environment of outer space provides man with very little natural necessities as Earth does, sustainability through self-production will be the greatest advantage of growing food in space.
This is especially true for future missions that involve the exploration of one of our nearest neighbours, Mars. A sustainable, well-designed extraterrestrial food production system will be very important in developing a workable habitat under the planet’s unfriendly surface conditions.
Also, if future astronauts can simply grow fresh produce outside Earth, the need to send fresh produce via supply capsules is lowered, lessening payload and, overall, reducing the cost of launching resupply modules. As more tests are made, more crops can be grown, and the variety of food can also grow. This then will greatly help astronauts maintain a delectable selection of different fresh produce in space, which would always be ready to serve.
There are no official announcements as to what the next phase of the Veg-01 project will be. However, NASA may already be planning to ramp it up with something that is even more challenging yet more rewarding and, of course, a lot tastier than red romaine lettuce.