Why NASA’s space lettuce is a game changer
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.
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.”
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.
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.