Galactic Gardens: How to Eat Local in Space

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What must it feel like to be an astronaut: weightless, rocketing farther and farther from home and country, gazing out your craft’s window at the deepness of space, wondering where you can get a good salad…

As astronauts set their sights on a not-so-distant mission to Mars, scientists are wondering what to put on spacecraft menus. Current packaged meal options, while far more advanced than the nutrition pills and pureed-food tubes of early space travel, aren’t practical for an extended trip, says Alexandra Witze in Science News. “Six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years, the length of a Mars mission, adds up to 20 tons of prepared food that would need to be launched.”

Homegrown space food could be the answer. Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are exploring ways for astronauts to raise their own vegetables in orbit, from radishes and lettuce to cherry tomatoes and mizuna greens. The plants, generating oxygen as well as food, are grown hydroponically, with blue, red, and green lights employed to aid production and special implements used to carry moisture to their roots.

But as with Sputnik 1, the Russians got here first. They’ve been growing food in space, on a small scale, for decades and have a miniature garden in their part of the International Space Station. Now, funding for research in the United States–which has been fickle over the years–is reinvigorated, thanks to the prospective trek to Mars.

Researchers suspect that space gardens won’t be the primary source of sustenance on galactic missions, but fresh-picked vegetables will be a welcome addition to the cycle of processed and packaged meals.

“Along with reducing trash and launch mass requirements, such crops would give astronauts a little diet variety and psychological lift,” writes Witze. After all, even astronauts love to eat local.

Source: Science News

Image by Tim Sackton, licensed under Creative Commons.

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