Spaceflight Insider

Why NASA’s space lettuce is a game changer

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson VEGGIE experiment International Space Station ISS NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The Veggie experiment on the International Space Station could dramatically reduce the amount of cargo that has to be carried on crewed deep space missions. Photo Credit: NASA

While a lot has been said about how NASA used the VEGGIE experiment on the International Space Station (ISS), the why of it has been discussed to a lesser extent. The fact is, this little experiment could be a game changer for space exploration.

The most obvious way to highlight the importance of this is by asking a question: “What takes up less weight and volume on a spacecraft – prepared meals for crew members or a packet of seeds?”

The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is an experiment designed to give crews fresh vegetables, something that will be a requirement if the space agency is to send astronauts on extended missions to the Moon or Mars. A plant growth unit, one that is both deployable and capable of producing healthy foods, is practically a prerequisite for long-duration stays on Mars.

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson holds a fistful of lettuce grown on the International Space Station as part of the Veggie experiment to test space crops in orbit. Photo credit: NASA TV

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson holds a fistful of lettuce grown on the International Space Station as part of the Veggie experiment to test space crops in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA TV

Aside from the more tangible benefits of having a viable source of healthy food, there is also a more nebulous reason that Veggie is of great value.

Barring the discovery and implementation of some new type of propulsion system, voyages between Earth and Mars will take time – a lot of it. Crewed trips to Mars could last six months or longer. Tending to a greenhouse as they travel from one world to the next could provide the explorers with a vital psychological respite, requiring them to care for the “crops” with lighting and nutrients.

Moreover, because plants consume what humans exhale – carbon dioxide – a vegetable garden is seen as an important part of any spacecraft or habitat life support system.

“The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits,” said NASA’s lead on Veggie, Dr. Gioia Massa. “I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario… My hopes are that Veggie will eventually enable the [ISS] crew to regularly grow and consume fresh vegetables.”

Developed by Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) located in Madison, Wisconsin, the system was put through its organic paces at the space agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

Veggie, or Veg-01, flew to orbit atop a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket as part of the CRS-3/SpX-3 cargo delivery mission to the ISS. That mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida on Apr. 18, 2014.

Upon arrival at the space station, Veggie was placed in the lab’s Columbus Module until the station’s crew was ready to begin the experiment. In May of 2014, Expedition 39 flight engineers Steve Swanson (who would go on to command the ISS) and Rick Mastracchio set up Veggie within a Processing of Experiments to the Space Station (EXPRESS) rack.

“I hope that the astronauts on the space station eventually will use the equipment to ‘experiment’ with their own seeds or projects,” said Nicole Dufour, who coordinated and led the testing of the flight hardware at KSC and wrote the crew procedures for the astronauts. “Veggie is designed for crew interaction and to enjoy the plants as they are growing.”

Nicole Dufour (left) and Gioia Massa perform prelaunch testing on lettuce sprouts, under LED grow lights. Photo credit: NASA

Nicole Dufour (left) and Gioia Massa perform prelaunch testing on lettuce sprouts, under LED grow lights. Photo Credit: NASA

The Veggie experiment utilized red, blue, and green LED lights, which Swanson activated on May 8 of last year. A root mat along with six ‘plant pillows’ with red romaine lettuce seeds were placed into Veggie. Each of the plant pillows contained fertilizer and calcined clay, similar to what is used on U.S. baseball fields. This type of clay aided in the plants’ growth and aeration. Also, to kick-start the plants’ growth, each plant pillow was provided with about 100 milliliters of water.

“Veggie could be used as a modular plant chamber for a variety of plants that grow up rather than in the ground,” said Gerard Newsham, the Veggie payload support specialist with Jacobs Technology on the Test and Operations Support Contract. “This is just the beginning.”

The two primary objectives of the Veggie experiment are to see if this lettuce grown on orbit is safe to eat (which Expedition 44 crew members appear to have confirmed) and to ensure that the system that supports Veggie operates as advertised. With the romaine lettuce now proven, according to reports posted by NASA, another plant will be checked out next in the Veggie experiment box.

The producers of Veggie have stated that they hope the experiment will blossom into a full-fledged ISS facility, one with an array of vegetables growing within. For its part, the current Veggie hardware will remain aboard the ISS where it should continue as part of NASA’s Small Business Innovative Research program. Plants will be processed through Veggie to see which ones grow best in the microgravity environment.

With the space agency eyeing a possible crewed landing on Mars as early as the 2030s, the concept of having astronauts grow their own food is gaining appeal. Most uncrewed missions to the ISS require significant portions of volume be set aside for food and air. Having plants on board the space station will not negate this; however, they could help to lessen a number of future cargo flights.

At present, the U.S. space agency is working with private aerospace firms to have them handle the dual responsibilities of ferrying crews and cargo to the International Space Station as NASA works on the loftier goal of sending crews to a fragment of an asteroid towed into lunar orbit sometime in the 2020s, and then on to Mars a decade later.

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

George Worthington

I believe the veggie program is very important.
However NASA doesn’t need to be the ones growing food in Space. That needs to be done by outside businesses.
IMAGE hiring Bigelow to provide a greenhouse that grows lots of food.
This farm can be setup in LEO to provide food for ISS.
After ISS, it could provide food for space tourism/stations for other countries.

SHOULD NASA decide to provide work for spaceX falcon heavy by going to the moon’s poles for water. The green houses could just be boosted to an L point or landed on the moon’s pole.

The mission for ISS should be changed.It should not be just a platform for experiments with throw away cargo and manned capsules. But should demonstrate affordable ways of living in Space.ISS should be the anchor tenant for the space economy.

A major way to get man into space is through tourism. But tourism will fail if NASA doesn’t promote ways to reduce cost.

MAYBE NASA CHARTER should be changed to make launch to LEO cheaper and safer, make space travel cheaper and safer, make living in Space cheaper and safer

We need to grow our way into outer space.

“What takes up less weight and volume on a spacecraft, prepared meals for crew members, or a packet of seeds?”

The answer is: pre-prepared meals.

This article makes a critical error, it completely forgot to take into account the weight of nutrients and everything else that is needed for the plants to grow. Plants do not magically grow from nothing. Basic Chemistry from High School, matter cannot be created or destroyed. The nutrient solutions that they will need to use to grow the plants will weigh about as much as the plants themselves will eventually weigh, more if there are nutrient losses in those plants during growth. In a closed system there will be no net gain or loss in weight, the carbon dioxide pulled from the air goes into the plant, nutrients absorbed from the growth solution goes into the plants, and eventually are consumed by people who are eating the plant. And don’t forget the weight of the structure that holds the plants as they grow, the lights that shine on the plants, water, and whatever growth medium that they require as well.

“The Veggie experiment utilized red, blue and green LED lights, which Swanson activated on May 8 of last year. A root mat along with six ‘plant pillows’ with red romaine lettuce seeds were placed into Veggie. Each of the plant pillows contained fertilizer and calcined clay, similar to what is used on U.S. baseball fields. This type of clay aided in the plants’ growth and aeration. To kick start their growth, each was provided with about 100 milliliters of water.”

I don’t deny the benefits of growing plants in space, both for psychological well-being and physical well-being. It’s important, and will quite likely be a requirement for very long-duration spaceflight. However, the question that is being asked here is the wrong one.

Doug,
Are you seriously suggesting crews should rely on a constant supply or prepackaged meals as opposed to using the soil and water found on say Mars to produce fresh food? The article suggests using in situ resources are the way to explore the solar system. All of the materials you noted can be found on the moon, Mars or wherever. Instead of constantly lifting tons of cargo out of earths gravity well, we need to find ways to cultivate the resources already at these locations. Veggie is a good first step on that path.

The trap so many fall in to is they appear to view space as some tourist destination – when we need to view it as something that requires investment of resources and development. It’s time that we broke free of the “flags and footprints” approach you appear to support and start considering these places as new homes for humanity.

Sorry, I think the only error made was you failed to look at the bigger picture.

Cheers, Steve

Using soil and water from the Moon or Mars is an entirely different scenario. That is definitely not a closed-loop system. I did say in my comment that growing food in space is valuable, and will be important in the future, however, the question that’s asked in the article is wrong. I can easily imagine that the weight of materials and volume of space that would be required to grow crops (sustainably or not) could be substituted with enough packaged meals to last for years.

Steve Williams

Hi Doug,
Okay, while I concur that you can replace elements used to begin constructing the facilities to begin the growth of food – I’d argue that your approach is a tad short-sighted. Again, it makes more sense to design a program meant for long-term human habitation.

Also, the article mentions how NASA is planning manned missions to Mars at least twice. So, I’d argue your comment stating using water from the moon or Mars is an entirely different scenario and then trying to say the question raised by the writer was wrong -is contradictory.

The story talks about NASA sending folks to Mars and rather than the maintain a consistently-costly method as the one you support, it makes far more sense to make a large investment initially and then to be able to rely on in situ-grown resources.

Cheers, Steve

My argument isn’t short-sighted at all. I’ve repeatedly said that growing food in space is a valuable endeavor that will pay dividends in the future. So yes, devoting time and energy into programs to do this is worthwhile.

Growing food in space is different from growing food on the Moon or Mars. That should be blindingly obvious to everyone reading these comments. Besides, we won’t be growing food on the Moon or Mars for quite some time yet.

So, if you read the question again, you will see that the article is wrong to ask the question it is asking, because the answer to the question posed is the opposite of what the author thinks it is. Pre-packaged foods will always take less weight and volume than would be required for everything that would be needed to grow plants in space. That equation changes when you can get nutrients and water from outside sources on the Moon or Mars.

George Worthington

If we are ever going to settle space we need to get on with learning how to live there. Farming in Space is a first step. Space “farms” are something that can be built in LEO now and then sent on missions later.

We need to BUILD sustainable systems in Space now not later.

Thank you, Doug, for speaking my mind. And you type it better and more polite. I want to add the issue of the risk of something in the food production process malfunctioning. Compared to the safe alternative of just having ready-to-eat food in storage. How much dry food powder per person and day is needed? 100 gram? That’s just the astronauts own weight during a thousand day trip to and from Mars. She doesn’t need any farming laboratory to spend half the time working with. She just needs a bag from Earth. Fail-safe.

Growing food is what Earth is the best at of all known planets. Obviously, it is a bad business model to try to compete with exactly THAT in space. Anything else has a better chance. Earth will hold its place as the best food supplier in the Solar System forever.

This experiment is interesting for biologists, but growing lettuce in weightlessness will have no consequences whatsoever for human spaceflight this century.

George Worthington


Avatar
DTARS Hug Doug
4 hours ago
More thoughts on spaceflight growing cheaper.
http://www.spaceflightinsider….
0 Edit Reply

Avatar
Hug Doug DTARS
3 hours ago
“What takes up less weight and volume on a spacecraft, prepared meals for crew members, or a packet of seeds?”
The answer is: pre-prepared meals.
This article made the same mistake you did, they completely forgot to take into account the weight of nutrients and everything else that is needed for the plants to grow. Plants do not magically grow from nothing. Basic Chemistry from High School, matter cannot be created or destroyed. The nutrient solutions that they will need to use to grow the plants will weigh about as much as the plants themselves will eventually weigh, more if there are nutrient losses in those plants during growth. In a closed system there will be no net gain or loss in weight, the carbon dioxide pulled from the air goes into the plant, nutrients absorbed from the growth solution goes into the plants, and eventually are consumed by people who are eating the plant. And don’t forget the weight of the structure that holds the plants as they grow, the lights that shine on the plants, water, and whatever growth medium that they require as well.
“The Veggie experiment utilized red, blue and green LED lights, which Swanson activated on May 8 of last year. A root mat along with six ‘plant pillows’ with red romaine lettuce seeds were placed into Veggie. Each of the plant pillows contained fertilizer and calcined clay, similar to what is used on U.S. baseball fields. This type of clay aided in the plants’ growth and aeration. To kick start their growth, each was provided with about 100 milliliters of water.”
I don’t deny the benefits of growing plants in space, both for psychological well-being and physical well-being. It’s important, and will quite likely be a requirement for very long-duration spaceflight. However, the question that is being asked here is the wrong one.
0 Reply

Avatar
DTARS Hug Doug
7 minutes ago
I didn’t make the mistake he made about seeds.
The whole point of growing stuff in Space is to have a mostly closed system.
Today common sense says that when the ISS crew burns up their trash that a lot of it is the over flow from their waste system. This simply needs to be recycled, not burned up!!!
When I was a kid cleaning out the horse stalls we saved the manure and grew our vegetables in it. As expensive as it is to get food/shit/nutrients to LEO, once they are in space they need to stay in space.
SHIT in Space a precious resource!
0 Edit Reply

George Worthington

I think building a “closed” food system in Space is very important!

Why? Isn’t it much easier to recycle only the water and let the tiny mass of solid food either go to the eternal emptiness, or be stored in a way to help radiation shielding?

If the ISS recycled human wastes, and allowed the plants to utilize it, then people on the ISS could eat and study the plants and find optimal ways for space agriculture and clean up human waste in a win win situation. What they learn could be utilized for space tourism, other space stations later, Moon Mars and asteroid exploration as well as future space travel.

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