The Ability To Grow Plants and Veggies In Space
Did you know that since April 2014, NASA scientists have been testing growing plants and vegetables on the Space Station? You see, a veggie system can keep astronauts and Mars colonists alive by providing the food they need. The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a real, non-science-fiction, portable unit capable of growing plants in space, providing a crew with a source of fresh, palatable, nutritious food. Red romaine lettuce grows in "pillows" with controlled release fertilizer and a type of clay that increases root aeration and plant growth. For light energy needs, NASA scientists came up with a combination of red, blue and green LED's. According to Dr. Gioia Massa, NASA's team leader for the Veggie program, there may be psychological benefits too. As an astronaut in Earth's orbit or a future colonist away on Mars, "veggies" are a healthy thing to have for your well-being.
For those of us who enjoyed the series Mars from National Geographic, we clearly remember how the mission's success and its ability to prosper hinged on the ability to develop and obtain sustainable sources of water, energy, AND food. And clearly, the foods that NASA scientists believe should be the choice for a future Mars colony are plants and vegetables. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat, and soybeans are all good choices, according to NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler, Ph.D. because they provide plenty of healthy carbohydrates, with soybeans as a good source of protein. Other common species grown and studied by NASA include peas, cress, dwarf wheat, parsley, rice, tulips, onions, radishes, garlic, cucumbers, and basil.
Since July 1946, NASA scientists have been testing the possibility of growing plants in outer space. Of major concern was being exposed to cosmic radiation, destroying a seed's ability to germinate and thrive. On that date, maize seeds flew 134 km high above our surface on a V-2 rocket. Maize was quickly followed by rye and cotton. These experiments were designed by Matthew Amoroso, NASA's top scientist at the time, with support for the Naval Research Laboratory. NASA's plant experiments continued through the 1990s with experiments on the Space Shuttle, Mir, and ISS, to test the effects of microgravity and Aeroponic systems.
We think of soil as a "must-have" to grow plants, but Aeroponic systems, as an alternative to soil-like growth mediums, have proven that plants can still grow without it. Aeroponic systems apply a water-nutrient mist directly to the roots, consequently reducing water usage by 98 percent and fertilizer by 60 percent with a maximum crop yield. NASA's plant research scientists have determined that grown this way, plants take more minerals and vitamins, resulting in healthier and more nutritious food. NASA pioneered research in Aeroponics for space farms, but it also has shown down-to-Earth benefits. Aeroponics limit infections by reducing contact between plants and sterilizing nutrient transport. Higher density is achieved when compared to traditional ways. Requiring less energy, space, and resources, Aeroponics systems point a future way to increase crop yields with less impact on our environment.
From the very beginning of space exploration, NASA scientists have recognized the need for growing crops outside our world. Plants are an integral part of our symbiotic relationship with planet Earth, and in the self-contained environment of a space station, plants provide nourishment for body and soul, improve air quality, and remove poisonous carbon dioxide from the air, while creating life-giving oxygen in return. All they need is water, light, fertilizer, and a place to grow roots, which is not that much to ask.