Gardening in Outer Space
For those with green thumbs, space really is the final frontier. In any environment, gardening has its challenges, but it’s especially difficult in places that lack gravity.
Nevertheless, some astronauts are now growing plants and, in the process, discovering methods that may someday be used in other galaxies.
The International Space Station (ISS) has seen some exciting gardening successes in recent years. Since 2002, it’s run the Lada Validating Vegetable Production Unit, a kind of celestial greenhouse. By August 2015, astronauts there had even grown enough produce to make their own salads. Before feasting on their homegrown lettuce, though, they had to clean it with a sanitizing substance.
Moreover, in early 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly managed to grow a bright orange, edible zinnia aboard the ISS. It was the first flower ever grown in space.
Of course, these plants have required special technologies. For example, the heads of lettuce were cultivated inside “veggie chambers,” which debuted in May 2014. The chambers utilize LED lights to simulate sunlight. In fact, whatever stage of life a plant is in, it will receive the ideal amount and intensity of light.
Veggie chambers contain plant pillows, bags that are filled with nutritious materials. They weigh plants down so they won’t float away and so their roots will only grow in one direction: down. Astronauts insert wicks into those bags, which direct water and hold seeds in place.
In addition, researchers have had to find ways of ridding space environments of microbes as well as ethylene, a hormone that plants release. Ethylene makes fruits and vegetables ripen faster, which shortens the period of time in which they can be consumed. Luckily, astronauts are able to use an air-purifying device called an ethylene scrubber.
While it’s currently focused on growing leafy greens, NASA wants to experiment with other kinds of fruits and vegetables soon. For instance, the ISS is scheduled to receive tomato seeds in 2018.
At some point, astronauts will likely try their luck with potatoes and, later on, grains like rice and wheat, all of which present their own challenges. Obviously, potatoes are more appetizing after they’ve been cooked, so a reliable cooking system must be developed. And, even trickier, some kind of space mills will be needed to process grains.
Benefits That Are Out of This World
Scientists at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, which is assisting NASA with its plant-growing efforts, have discovered that gardening astronauts enjoy a psychological boost. They feel happier and more relaxed.
Gardening, after all, is a peaceful activity, one that connects people to nature and to generations past ― to their roots, if you will. Not to mention, seeing plants probably reminds them of Earth. Thus, this pastime can probably relieve homesickness.
As a more practical consideration, space gardens may someday lower NASA’s overall operating budget. It’s extremely expensive to send food to the ISS via supply ships, and Domino’s Pizza doesn’t deliver that far.
As much as humans may love the planet Earth, it won’t be around forever. If people are to make new homes on new planets, they’ll need advanced gardening skills and technologies. Fortunately, the plants of tomorrow are sprouting today, inside wondrous facilities high above the Earth’s fragile atmosphere.