First Harvest of the Final Frontier

Astronauts become gardeners with Veggie technology.

By Alex Gardner

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NASA's VEGGIE program hopes to grow a space garden.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.

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.

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