While on the NASA Social for the DEMO-1 launch, we were taken for a tour of the Veggie Lab. For those of us who grew up in homes where gardens were always raised, it was very intriguing!
As we plan for long-duration trips to the Moon, Mars, and beyond we have to be able to have enough food to survive. It’s impossible to transport enough food for multi-month missions, so there has to be a way to grow food in space. Simply taking a multi-vitamin has been proven ineffective. Astronauts must have fresh produce.
When was the last time you tried to raise a garden without gravity? How about without sunlight? Yeah, it’s not easy and it offers up a whole series of problems that really smart people have to come up with answers to.
First, the gravity problem….
Just watering the plants would be tricky! You would pour your water onto the soil, only to have it float upward. Little good that does to a plant that has roots beneath the soil. This means the plants must be watered through a spongy soil that absorbs moisture and then holds it for the roots to have access to.
Plants “breathe” in carbon dioxide and convert that to oxygen. That’s awesome for the astronauts but there’s one little problem. That oxygen, due to lack of gravity, just pools around the plant. The next thing you know there’s 100% oxygen pooling around the plant. By the way, oxygen is extremely flammable/explosive!
Astronauts may be forced to go extended periods of time without sunlight to help grow the plants. That’s where the use of lights must be tested. Which ones work best? Which plants grow better with certain lights? The list of testing goes on and on and on……
Many of the lights in the lab glowed a magenta color. I assume that means many of the plants grow best in that light. Thankfully, even without gravity plants tend to grow toward the light. That makes it easier to get them grow “normally” and upright toward the light overhead them.
Foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, will be added later on. The added antioxidants will offer added protection from harmful radiation in space.
But, how wonderful to be millions of miles from home and be able to bite into a fresh carrot. Or go pick a beautiful red tomato and put a little salt on it and have a treat. Maybe pick some lettuce for that ham sandwich you just fixed. Sounds pretty good, right?
There was something else on this tour that surprised me. I saw all kinds of beautiful flowers. NASA felt that it was necessary to not only grow plants for nourishment, but for beauty. How nice to be able to pick some fresh flowers while drifting through the darkness of space! Or to have some flowers to come home to after a day of exploring on the Moon’s desolate surface. How cool to be able to take some pics of those flowers with the earth in the backdrop of the picture. You all would really lose your minds on my Facebook pictures then! (haha)
As we venture farther and farther away, the last problem the astronauts should face is starvation. That’s where the Veggie Lab comes in. And not only will you be able to put some lettuce on that sandwich, but you’ll be able to eat it at a table with a bouquet of fresh cut Daisies.
As of now, the astronauts on the International Space Station rely on resupply missions from Earth to keep them stocked with food and supplies. I was honored to be a part of a NASA Social at Wallops Island, Virginia last November to see one of those resupply missions. The vegetables and fruit were loaded onto the payload the evening before the launch, to ensure sending the freshest produce possible.
The Veggie Lab was one of the most intriguing places to me at NASA. They experiment with all the different ways of getting plants to grow and thrive in an environment quite unlike anything we have here on our own planet.
The cool thing about this, as with all things NASA, is that things learned in the Veggie Lab will eventually make their way into your garden and/or store shelves!
Anyone else craving garden-fresh veggies now? (ha)