Colorado Astronaut Grows Vegetables in Space

Commander Steve Swanson shows off a red romaine lettuce plant he harvested from the Veggie facility aboard the International Space Station. Image Source: NASA TV

Commander Steve Swanson shows off a red romaine lettuce plant he harvested from the Veggie facility aboard the International Space Station. Image Source: NASA TV

June 11, 2014 – Commander Steve Swanson harvested his first crop of red romaine lettuce on the International Space Station Tuesday. Swanson’s Veg-01 experiment focuses on the growth and development of “Outredgeous” lettuce seedlings in the spaceflight environment.

Swanson grew the lettuce in a new plant growth facility called Veggie. Veggie uses a flat-panel light bank that includes red, blue and green LEDs for plant growth and crew observation. The plants were grown from seed and could alter the ability of people to grow fresh food, and ultimately, to live in outer space.

The Vegetable Production System (Veggie). The purple light is the wavelength that is supposed to best promote photosynthesis and growth for the plants. Image Source: NASA

The Vegetable Production System (Veggie). The purple light is the wavelength that is supposed to best promote photosynthesis and growth for the plants. Image Source: NASA

“Veggie will provide a new resource for U.S. astronauts and researchers as we begin to develop the capabilities of growing fresh produce and other large plants on the space station,” said Gioia Massa, NASA payload scientist for Veggie.

After Swanson harvested the leaves, he placed them in a freezer container to be returned to Earth. The plants will be tested to determine the safety of crops grown in microgravity.

“Determining food safety is one of our primary goals for this validation test.” Said Massa.

Massa is looking forward to expanding Veggie production on the ISS and testing various crops. Astronauts currently have access to very small amounts of fresh food during their stay on the space station. In-orbit food production will be essential as NASA moves toward long-duration exploration missions, such as a mission to Mars.

Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) in Madison, Wisconsin developed Veggie through a Small Business Innovative Research Program. NASA and ORBITEC engineers and collaborators at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida worked to get the unit’s hardware flight-certified for use on the space station.

Some adjustments to the growth chamber were made to accommodate space requirements. Veggie’s unique design is collapsible for transport and storage and expandable up to a foot and a half as plants grow inside it.

“The internal growing area is 11.5 inches wide by 14.5 inches deep, making it the largest plant growth chamber for space to date,” Massa said.