First Harvest of the Final Frontier

Astronauts become gardeners with Veggie technology.

Alex Gardner February 12, 2014

The early-morning sun shines brightly on a rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Crowds of young and old are gathered to watch one of mankind’s greatest displays of power and ingenuity. Packed tightly in the rocket, six history makers sit patiently for a 250-mile journey to the International Space Station (ISS). Their performance at the ISS, a foreign environment with few comforts, will affect how man will look at the colonization of space. The pressure is on, and the eyes of the world are watching these American heroes. But these heroes are not astronauts; they are lettuce seeds.

In February 2014, six red romaine lettuce seeds will be launched into space aboard a private SpaceX rocket at Kennedy Space Center.

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Currently in a laboratory at the space center, the Vegetable Production System, nicknamed "Veggie," sits waiting to be the home of the space lettuce and take the trip to the space station, as well. Veggie will house the lettuce and help to establish a consistent and stable environment for the plants. A vital fixed structure in a zero-gravity location, the 2-foot-tall Veggie will provide protection and a semi-enclosed place for the plants by controlling the air and humidity around them and supplying them with the appropriate amount of light.

“In a lot of ways, this will be a test,” says Gioia Massa, Ph.D., project scientist in the Ground Processing and Research Office at Kennedy Space Center, who began working on Veggie in 2011. “Is this an effective way to grow food? Are we providing enough water, enough light, a good environment for the plants to grow?”

If the lettuce seeds grow well and are deemed safe to consume, American astronauts will soon be eating from their own space garden. NASA hopes to match the success of the Russian astronauts who have already been harvesting vegetables like Mizuna lettuce and radishes from their side of the ISS. NASA is confident that its seeds will succeed, too, but as all gardeners know, there are no guarantees when gardening.

The romaine variety, ‘Outredgeous’, came from Johnny's Select Seeds and was selected in part because it has a leaf composition that minimizes bacteria growth on the plant. 

“[Lettuces are] so fast growing and easy to grow. They’re a good starting point,” says Robert Morrow, Ph.D., lead scientist of the Bio-Products and Bio-Production Systems Group at Orbital Technologies Corporation, Massa’s private-sector counterpart.

First, the seeds are enclosed in a jar and exposed to bleach and hydrochloric acid vapor for an hour to absorb the chemicals. The fumes will cleanse and sterilize the seeds so that they do not bring with them any bacteria from Earth that would quickly spread in the closed environment of the ISS. The seeds are then covered in a controlled-release fertilizer, Nutricote, which causes them to germinate only when primed with water. Lastly, they suit up, like astronauts, by being placed in plant pillows, which are similar to peat pellets that many gardeners use to start seeds indoors. These pillows are filled with arcillite, a decomposed clay substance full of nutrients. Each pillow is then positioned between two wicks that draw moisture into the pillow from a root mat placed below, which astronauts will fill with water.

If the first lettuce grows successfully on the ISS (the process should take about 30 days) the six plants will be frozen and await a flight back to earth—a flight that consists of crashing into the Pacific Ocean, where the capsule will be retrieved, taken to California, and flown back to Cape Canaveral. Once back at Kennedy Space Center, the lettuce will be tested using the “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points,” or HACCP, standards that are common FDA regulations followed by food manufacturers. Scientists will be looking for bacteria growing on the plants.

“There’s a lot of human-associated micro-organisms up there,” says Massa. “We don’t have any of the native plant bacteria there to outcompete the bacteria associated with the humans, so you have to make sure there’s nothing pathogenic living on your plants.”

After being bombarded with tests, the lettuce will have completed its mission. Unfortunately, no one will get to act as taste-tester and eat the first space lettuce crop. If the test comes back negative for harmful contamination, astronauts intend on eating the next crop of lettuce.

On the day of the launch, Massa and Morrow will have nothing left to do but join the spectators in watching and waiting for the seeds to do their work. Man will have brought the environment of Earth to space, and then nature can play its part.

“It’s very exciting,” says Massa. “It’s also pretty nerve-wracking. There will be some fingernail biting.”

Morrow echoes Massa’s sentiments.

“I am generally very nervous until we see how the system is performing,” says Morrow. “If it goes well, I can relax and enjoy the sense of accomplishment. If there are problems, it’s back to the drawing board.”

In an era when so much is readily available, we can easily take from Earth without appreciating it. The adventure that these seeds are about to take should remind us of the value of Earth, our home. No matter how far technology advances us, it will be nature that sustains us.

Photos courtesy of NASA

Get to Know “Veggie”
With the absence of soil, space, gravity, and air, outer space sounds like a terrible place to plant a garden. But that’s not the case anymore thanks to the Vegetable Production System, a convergence of technology and nature. Here is how Veggie will provide a life-sustaining environment in an unforgiving place.

Veggie provides:

Structure
Veggie will be secured in the Columbus Laboratory Module of the International Space Station where many astronauts pass through daily. Veggie’s clear Teflon sides fold, like an accordion, which allows the technology to be easily stored away. The height can also therefore be adjusted depending on the heights of the plants growing inside. Veggie is powered by electricity and will draw less than 100 watts of power. In order to keep Veggie secure inside the module, it will be clipped to a wall.

Soil & Water
The seeds will be placed in plant pillows that are similar to peat pellets that gardeners use to start seeds indoors. The seeds, and later the plants, will draw nutrients from a decomposed clay material called arcillite. In order to allow the plants to draw water, wicks will connect the plant pillows to a root mat below that is filled with water.

Air
Unlike earlier systems developed by NASA and OrbiTec, Veggie is an open-air system that pulls air into it with a fan and was designed to assist in cleansing the air of the ISS. It was also much simpler to have an open-air model than to pipe the right mixture of air into the system.

Light
Robert Morrow, Ph.D., lead scientist of the Bio-Products and Bio-Production Systems Group at Orbital Technologies Corporation and a leader of the Veggie project, describes the light system as the main piece of hardware. Veggie contains red, blue, and green LED lights, and the unique color combination serves many of the plants’ needs. The red and blue lights are at opposite ends of the light spectrum and allow the plants to photosynthesize. Although the red light alone would cause the plants to photosynthesize, the addition of the blue light also gives the plants a sense of direction and prompts them to grow upward in the zero-gravity environment. The green light is simply used to showcase the cherished plants and allow the astronauts to observe the coloring of the plants and take accurate photos. The lettuce will be constantly illuminated throughout the growing period.