Space: the final frontier! Or so the TV show says. But before that becomes a full fledged reality, we humans first need to solve a few puzzles, one of which is how to sustain life on prolonged journeys and expeditions. And part of that means having to grow your own food. Last August, astronauts on the International Space Station tasted the almost literal first fruits of their labors of growing vegetables, particularly lettuce in outer space. Now NASA has released a short clip that reveals some insights on the process.
Growing vegetables isn’t really rocket science. That is until you try to grow them in outer space. A lot of our knowledge about how plants grow and react to signals are based on years, even centuries of observations and experiments here on terra firma. A lot of those are being challenged now that humans have successfully grown actually edible plant life in space.
Take for example the case of gravity. Almost all of us would expect that without gravity, roots would grow helter-skelter. Apparently not so. Plants seem to use other cues for the direction of their growth. In general, roots try to take up as much space as possible for efficient growth in a direction opposite the source of light. Light here seems to be the one constant that plants can depend on. In outer space, where sunlight is less reliable, astronauts have resorted to red, blue, and green light from LEDs. Actually only red and blue are vital. Green is just needed to stop the lettuce from looking like a purple alien lifeform.
Data harvested (pun totally intended) from the last two successful veggie projects on the ISS has several benefits to man, both in space and on Earth. Of course, it paves the way for growing food in space, which could help lead to longer space missions. But the data also challenges are long held beliefs about plants here on land as well, which could eventually help in discovering ways to make plant life more sustainable even in otherwise inhabitable locations.