NASA growing food in space: An amazing technological feat
When future astronaut crews begin living and working at more distant destinations in space, they will need to take a little of the Earth with them to help them breathe and allow them to eat their vegetables.
During my visit to NASA this August, I met Dr. Gioia Massa, a life science project scientist and deputy project scientist on NASA’s vegetable production system (VEGGIE) project for the International Space Station (ISS). The project was developed by Orbital Technologies Corp (ORBITEC) in Madison, Wisconsin, which is now Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC).
Figure 1 Dr. Massa (right) and I toured the “VEGGIE” program lab at NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC). (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)
The reason for growing food in space is not what you would first imagine. Astronauts will still continue to eat NASA prepared foods on the ISS, similar to the freeze-dried ones most of us are familiar with, except they have greatly improved the quality. Growing food on the ISS has multiple benefits. When an astronaut can put a fresh piece of lettuce or another vegetable as a supplement into their prepared food, it is very positive psychologically to have something familiar from Earth. In the future, maybe oxygen can be generated via plants in such an enclosed environment, and this is also a tool for relaxation and recreation for the astronauts (see this interesting article on Science 2.0 by Robert Walker).
Dr. Massa commented that taste changes in space, sort of like having a cold, with the different pressure on the ISS. This is because fluids in the body get affected by the reduced gravity conditions (also called fluid shift). On Earth, gravity acts on the fluid in our bodies and pulls it into our legs. In space, this fluid is distributed equally in the body, so astronauts often add spices such as Sriracha or use Mizuna mustard to enhance the taste of their food.
This module in Figure 2 was sent up to the ISS soon after my visit. Dr. Massa runs ground control experiments there at NASA, monitoring temperature, relative humidity, and CO2 concentrations.
Figure 2 Dr. Massa gave us a look into VEGGIE that would be sent to the ISS--you can see our reflections in the specially coated glass on the door that keeps ambient light out. (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)
Not for sleeping purposes, pillows with seeds in them are installed on a root mat, which is in turn installed into the VEGGIE bellows. Power is applied and water is added to the root mat to begin seed germination. Water and growth height is maintained throughout the plant growth cycle until the vegetables are harvested and the growth cycle can be restarted.
Figure 3 A plant pillow (Image courtesy of Loretta Taranovich)
Inside these pillows is Arcillite, a solid growing substrate, used for growing plants in space in Veg-03.