Those of us on terra firma don’t often think of the people on the International Space Station when we talk about or try to find solutions to food deserts. But living 200 miles above the surface of the planet means these astronauts can’t dash out to their local farmers market when they have a hankering for salad.
The obvious solution to the dearth of fresh produce is to find ways for astronauts to grow their own food.
A new Vegetable Production System, called VEGGIE for short, is set to launch aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on NASA’s third Commercial Resupply Services mission next year that will turn astronauts into space farmers.
The VEGGIE system weighs about 15 pounds has a footprint equal to that of a microwave oven, and only requires about 115 watts to operate. According the NASA, that’s less than half the energy it takes to power a desktop computer or monitor.
VEGGIE sounds like an indoor hydroponic garden you can build yourself but there are features that will address the difficulties of gardening in microgravity.
The system can be adjusted to suit a plants height as it grows. Energy efficient LEDs that are capable emitting blue, red and green light will be used to conserve power and provide a full spectrum of light.
Crew members will take advantage of a water reservoir located below the pillows and a root mat to add water through capillary action.
Rooting pillows made of Teflon-coated Kevlar and Nomex will contain the planting media and fertilizer pellets. These rooting pillows will come either preloaded with seeds or astronauts will insert them in space.
Crops like tomatoes, melons and corn are out of the question. They require too much space and there’s a long wait to harvest. Instead the astronauts will grow crops like radishes, lettuces, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and leafy greens. The focus here is on growing vegetables that are easy to start from seed and are ready to harvest in days, not months.
Fresh produce only comes to the International Space Station a few times a year and, according to NASA, it gets eaten almost immediately. But VEGGIE will not provide an immediate solution to the lack of fresh vegetables about the International Space Station. At least not right away.
Swab samples and frozen plant tissue will be sent back to earth to Mary Hummerick, a microbiologist at Kennedy, who will test them for bacteria and microorganisms that could negatively affect our astronaut farmers. If everything checks out, NASA could give them the go-ahead to eat what they grow with VEGGIE.
VEGGIE will join other plant growth facilities such as the Lada greenhouse unit and the Advanced Biological Research System. VEGGIE is reportedly the simplest of the three designs and is expected to provide data on a more regular basis.
If the hardware performs as they expect, VEGGIE’s successful run would create limitless opportunities for more experiments in gardening in microgravity.