Every bit of food consumed on the International Space Station has always been delivered via costly manned and robotic missions. That will start changing, as the ISS crew have harvested their first edible crop of lettuce grown aboard the station. Past plants were only for research purposes, but they got to eat some of it this time. This could be a big step toward a more sustainable future for humans in space.
This harvest celebration is part of NASA’s Veg-01 experiment, which aims to test cultivation methods that could be used to help future astronauts survive long periods away from Earth. The official tweets for the ceremonious snacking are conspicuously tagged with #JourneyToMars. We are also informed that the astronauts were able to liven up their romaine lettuce with oil and vinegar. That’s nice, as eating dry salad all the way to Mars doesn’t sound very enjoyable.
The Veg-01 program was kicked off a little over a year ago when the seeds that would eventually grow into today’s snack were sent up to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon vessel. The seeds are packaged in small “pillows” that ensure the seeds can germinate in microgravity. The lettuce plants were successfully grown on the ground using this system before being sent up, but no one knew for sure if the plants would thrive and be safe to eat in space.
The first crop of plants grown on the ISS were sent back down to Earth last year for safety testing and analysis. The recently harvested crop was planted in July, but the seeds had been stored on the station for more than a year. That was also part of the experiment — it proved that the seed pillows were still viable after being in space for all that time.
Space missions are all about efficiency. The less mass you have to carry to sustain a crew, the more fuel and equipment you can carry. Right now if you were to send a mission to Mars, you’d have to include all the food needed by the crew to survive the trip there and (presumably) back. If, however, the crew could grow some calories during the mission, that would vastly improve efficiency. Seeds are much lighter than fully grown plants, after all.
NASA hopes to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, but a great deal of research needs to be done before undertaking such an effort. Growing the first edible food in space is a single (but important) piece of the puzzle.