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