Some salad on the International Space Station

The space lettuce growing system (Photo Orbital Technologies/NASA)
The space lettuce growing system (Photo Orbital Technologies/NASA)

Yesterday the crew of the International Space Station ate some salad. It seems a very trivial act but it was based on lettuce grown on the Station as part of the Veg-01 experiment that is specifically intended to study the growth of plants in a microgravity environment. The ultimate goal is to enable self-sufficiency in the food production during outer space trips and in space colonies.

Developed by Orbital Technologies, the Veg-01 experiment was flown to the International Space Station last year on the Dragon spacecraft and has gone through various phases. A mini-greenhouse uses lights red, blue and green LEDs to grow the plants, an idea that dates back to the ’90s.

The first lettuce plants of the  red romaine variety were grown in May 2014 by American astronaut Steve Swanson and brought back to Earth in October 2014. There, they were tested to make sure they’re actually edible. The results were positive and last month astronaut Scott Kelly grew more lettuce.

It takes 33 days for the lettuce to be ready for harvest and yesterday came the long-awaited day. The occasion was historic because it’s the first time that a plant grown in space got eaten. Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui gathered in a sort of small ceremony with the lettuce leaves collected and manipulated one by one with great care.

The three crew members first tasted lettuce plain then they tried it with a little extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to get some salad. Some lettuce was set aside for the other members of the International Space Station’s crew. Yesterday, cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko carried out a spacewalk so they couldn’t be present at the lettuce harvest.

The experiments on plant growth in space have been going on for some decades. Eating the product of one of these crops is a step forward that in the future may finally lead to regular crops. So far, the food for astronauts was brought from Earth but possible space colonies will need to produce their food independently. For this reason, in the future, yesterday’s events could be remembered as important moments in human history.

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