Astronauts can get bored with eating the same dehydrated and processed foods while working in space so NASA made multiple attempts over the years to find a vegetable that could be grown in space and supply astronauts with the nutrients needed for a healthy diet. They also tried to find a convenient gardening technique that could cultivate the produce.  Although many trials were conducted to find both, none could meet NASA’s standards. Until now.

Scientists at Kennedy Space Center in Florida found that red romaine lettuce produced in plant growth chambers could help diversify the space diet. These “Veggie” chambers use LEDs as a light source. Red romaine lettuce seeds are left to germinate and then are embedded in devices called “plant pillows”. These pillows contain a mixture of fertilizer and clay. Once the pillows are injected with water, the seed can continue to absorb nutrients and grow just like Earth-grown lettuce.

Red romaine lettuce grown on the International Space Station, ready to harvest.

Scientists wanted to find a plant that astronauts could easily pick and eat. The Veggie is ideal because it can grow about six heads of lettuce at a time. Since the Veggie allows astronauts to regulate factors like water and hardware, the likelihood of the lettuce getting contaminated or infected is relatively low. The lettuce did not show any signs of E. Coli or Salmonella, two deadly bacteria commonly found in Earth-grown produce.

Astronauts can now enjoy fresh produce grown in space. Growing the red romaine lettuce not only helps NASA scientists continue their research, but also provides astronauts with a therapeutic activity, gardening. Research is being conducted on whether or not other fruit vegetables like tomatoes and peppers can also be grown in space. Maybe in a few years, astronauts will have plates full of vegetables grown in their very own galactic garden.

Featured image: “Space Lettuces” by Kate Procter and George Tuli

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