Plants in Space

Several weeks ago there was a big splash in the media about astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) eating lettuce they had grown in Earth orbit. Having once spent ten weeks on a faculty fellowship at Kennedy Space Center working on potential problems associated with growing plants in space, I was curious about the progress that had been made since I had that experience.

image
Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev holds lettuce plants grown onboard the International Space Station.
Credits: NASA

Okay, I was more than a bit curious. I’m also writing a science fiction novel where plants grown in a greenhouse provide oxygen and food for the crew on a long-duration space mission. The reports from the ISS hardly dented the array of issues I’ve had to consider in creating a system that uses plants to provide crucial life-support for astronauts. By contrast, this recent story seemed almost trivial, a novelty. Astronauts had something better to eat for a change than vacuum-wrapped dry food or paste packaged months earlier back on Earth. I know NASA has grown plants in space for years. Is this the first time astronauts have officially eaten something they’ve grown in orbit? Really?

In fact, I have come up with a list of questions I hope to pose to NASA public relations contacts about plants in space. My questions follow below, and if anyone reading this list either has an answer, knows where I can find an answer, or knows who I might ask for an answer, please reply with a comment to this post.

1. Was the recent event on the ISS the first time space-grown plants have been eaten by astronauts in orbit?

I’ve found a tantalizing hint or two of other astronauts or cosmonauts eating space-grown food unofficially. But it seems that most space-grown plants were harvested and frozen or otherwise stored for shipment back to earth. Which leads to my next question.

2. Have space-grown plants ever been eaten by Earth-bound scientists before?

So if the space-grown veggies were promptly shipped back to Earth, did they get taste-tested there? I’ve gathered hints here and there about concerns that space-grown plants might not be safe for human consumption. I have to admit this sounds a bit like the worries about the safety of genetically-modified crops (GMCs). If it grows like a leaf of lettuce, is the same color – green, and looks like a lettuce leaf… Which leads to the next question.

3. Have toxic compounds ever been discovered in space-grown plants as a result of their growth in microgravity?

If it’s a serious concern, and not the wide-eyed speculations of someone who would rather bring food up to orbit from traditional farms back on good old planet Earth, then presumably space-grown plants have been tested for their safety. Has anything been found to justify further testing, or can our astronauts relax and enjoy any veggies they find the time and space to grow up there in the Space Station?

My last question, for now, goes back a bit further than the International Space Station and even the Space Shuttle. I think I know the official answer to this one, but it was a long boring ride (when nothing went wrong anyhow) from Earth orbit to the Moon.

4. Were plants ever grown by Apollo astronauts on a lunar landing mission either on the Moon or on the way there?

Once again, if you know part of an answer to any of these questions, please share. Even if you’re not sure, share your speculations. Or if you know where I might find an answer, or who I might ask, speak up. And thanks in advance.

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One thought on “Plants in Space

  1. Interesting questions, and I have been exploring some of them myself 🙂 An article by Robert Zimmerman in 2003 states that cosmonauts ate some of their Brassica rapa in November 2002: http://www.airspacemag.com/space/growing-pains-4148507/?all&no-ist

    I think the main concern with space-grown crops is that they may harbour bacteria – the lettuce leaves recently eaten were cleaned with anti-bac wipes before the astronauts were allowed to eat them.

    Liked by 1 person

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