Growing Vegetables in Space — Eat Like an Astronaut

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

When I check to see which blog posts are gathering interest, the ones featuring Tokyo bekana are doing well this past year. You might wonder why. It’s because it’s one of the greens being grown on the International Space Station, and most people haven’t heard of it before. I’ve written about Tokyo bekana as a winter hoophouse green here on earth, and as a summer alternative to lettuce in places with hot summers (Virginia, Jamaica, Cuba).

According to an article in The Atlantic, the first plant to grow in space was thale cress, Arabidopsis thaliana, a spindly plant with white flowers, related to mustards, mature 6 weeks after sowing. This was in 1982, on board Salyut, a Russian space station of the era. Thale cress was chosen for practical reasons: a fairly quick life cycle that allows for many analyses in a short time.

Young Outredgeous lettuce in late November. The persistent galinsoga shows that our hoophouse has not yet reached freezing temperatures.
Photo Pam Dawling

The first vegetable grown and eaten on the International Space Station space was Outredgeous red romaine lettuce, in 2015. Bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. 64 days to maturity on earth, 33 days in space, with intensely dark red, slightly ruffled leaves forming loose upright heads. “We are an organic seed farm in the Pacific Northwest, established in 1994, owned and operated by Frank and Karen Morton. We are known for farm-original varieties of many salad greens, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.” This is an Open Source Seed Initiative variety. The OSSI pledge: “You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.” Read more about OSSI here!

Read Astronauts are about to eat the first food grown in space 2015.  The lettuce was grown for 15 months [? I think several rounds of planting], and the astronauts cleaned the lettuce with citric-acid-based sanitizing wipes before eating it.

Outredgeous lettuce growing in the Veggie module. NASA photo

Space Hydroponics – Veggie 2015

Space gardening has to be hydroponic – there is no soil involved. I am a big proponent of “Keep the Soil in Organic”, as I believe there are nutrients we don’t yet know about, that the plants take up from the soil in the proportions they need. But in space, you can’t do that, soil is way too heavy. If you watched The Martian movie, you saw some hilarious efforts to grow potatoes in “soil”.

In the Space Station is a plant growth system Veg-0, fondly called “Veggie,” a chamber about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage, typically holding six plants. The magenta light bathing the plants in Veggie is the result of a combination of red and blue LED lights. the most efficient way to get good plant growth. Green LEDS were added later so the plants look like edible food rather than strange decorations. Without gravity, plants use other environmental factors, such as light, to orient their growth.

To grow the first food crop, a root mat and six plant “pillows,” each containing ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce seeds, were put into Veggie. Inside each plant pillow is a growth medium including controlled-release fertilizer and calcined clay as used on baseball fields. This clay increases aeration and helps the plants grow. The plants get about 100 milliliters of water each to start the seeds growing. The pillows distribute water, nutrients and air around the plant root, to prevent the roots from drowning in water or being trapped in air (because of the way fluids in space tend to form bubbles).

Veggie remains on the station permanently as a research platform for other leafy plant experiments (and a source of food and psychological comfort!). The crew does get some fresh fruits and vegetables when a supply ship arrives at the space station, but the quantity is limited and they are soon gone.

See the 2015 article Meals Ready to Eat: Expedition 44 Crew Members Sample Leafy Greens Grown on Space Station

Watch this video to learn more about growing plants in space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFdwv9yrxD0&feature=youtu.be

For technical information about Veggie, visit here, and also see the 2020 Veggie Fact Sheet

2017-2018 More Space Crops

Next up in 2017 was our friend Tokyo bekana (a frilly Japanese mustard greens).

NASA photo

See the Modern Farmer article from February 2017: The Astronauts on the International Space Station Are About to Harvest Chinese Cabbage (Tokyo bekana)

Tokyo bekana was chosen for its fairly short stature and fast growth. Other contenders included Swiss chard, spinach and beets. The scientists who noted Tokyo bekana’s short stature haven’t seen the healthy 24” (60 cm) ones I just pulled up in our hoophouse today! In our hoophouse climate, it bolts in January, so our plan includes clearing the crop then and sowing spinach for bare-root transplants.

“We conducted a survey of several leafy green vegetables and looked at how the crops grew, how nutritious they were, and how a taste panel felt about them,” Gioia Massa, a scientist on the project, told Modern Farmer in an email. “The ‘Tokyo bekana’ Chinese cabbage variety was rated as the top in growth and the favorite of tasters.”

Waldmanns Dark Green lettuce https://www.johnnyseeds.com

Next the cut-and-come-again harvest method was tried with a few leafy salad greens using: Mizuna mustard, Outredgeous red romaine lettuce and Waldmann’s Green lettuce.

Green mizuna in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

In some reports the little known Tokyo bekana is called, rather generally, but confusingly, Chinese cabbage or, more specifically, but mistakenly, bok choy, but we growers know the difference! Different sources in English use different names for Asian vegetables. I have a series of blogposts Asian Greens for the Month, which you can find by clicking that Category or using the search box.

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Asian greens divide into 3 groups:

  1. The turnip family, Brassica rapa, of Asian origin

Some crops are Brassica rapa pekinensis (napa cabbage, michihli, celery cabbage);

Others are Brassica rapa var. chinensis (bok choy): Tokyo bekana is either Brassica rapa var. pekinensis or var. chinensis

Brassica rapa var. japonica (mizuna),

Brassica rapa var. narinosa (tatsoi),

Brassica rapa var. perviridis (komatsuna)

2. The cabbage family, Brassica oleracea, of European origin (Kai-lan, Chinese kale)

3. The Chinese Mustard family, Brassica juncea (Ruby Streaks, Golden Frills, Red Rain)

Returning to 1a Brassica rapa var. pekinensis, there are two types: Wong Bok (Napa cabbage such as Blues, and cylindrical Michihli types) and Celery cabbage (pe tsai), which includes Tokyo bekana and the very similar Maruba Santoh.

  • A fast-growing, looseleaf, non-heading vegetable with light green leaves and white petioles.
  • Mild flavor, tender texture: can be substituted for lettuce
  • Can be ready for harvest in 3–4 weeks after sowing.
  • More heat tolerant than Napa cabbage. Cold tolerant to 25°F (-4°C)
  • Fairly bolt resistant

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Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor harvests red Russian kale and dragoon lettuce from Veggie on Nov. 28, 2018, just in time for Thanksgiving. The crew got to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack with balsamic vinegar, and Auñón-Chancellor reported the lettuce was “delicious!”
Credits: ESA/Alexander Gerst

Advanced Plant Habitat 2018

There are two Veggie units aboard the station, along with a more sophisticated growth chamber, the Advanced Plant Habitat.

The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is a growth chamber on the Space Station for plant research like Veggie. It uses LED lights and a porous clay substrate, and a controlled-release “fertilizer” delivering water, nutrients and oxygen to the plant roots.

Unlike Veggie, APH is sealed, and automated with cameras and more than 180 sensors that are in constant interactive contact with a team on the ground at Kennedy, so it doesn’t need day-to-day care from the crew. It has more colors of LED lights than Veggie, and also white, far red and even infrared to allow for nighttime imaging.

APH had its first test run on the space station in Spring 2018 using Arabidopsis thaliana (good old thale cress) and dwarf wheat.

Astronauts have grown eight different types of leafy greens in Veggie at different times. NASA is building up the ingredients for a pick-and-eat salad; or rather, a pick, sanitize and eat salad since there is no way to cook on the station yet.

Dragoon lettuce, Johnny’s Seeds

In 2018, the Space Station grew Dragoon lettuce, a green mini romaine. Compact and uniform. Leaves are thick and have an excellent, crisp texture. Heads are very dense, hold well in the field. Bolting and tipburn tolerant. Resistant to downy mildew, lettuce dieback lettuce mosaic virus and an aphid. For spring, summer, and fall on earth, anytime in space. Suitable for hydroponic systems. By contrast with Outredgeous, Dragoon is Utility Patent granted, meaning other people are prohibited from making, using, or selling the “invention” without authorization.

Another 2018 crop was Red Russian kale

Red Russian kale March 7
Photo Pam Dawling

Recent Space Veggies 2019-2020

In 2019 the Space Station crew cultivated Wasabi mustard (eaten as a microgreen after 10 days of growth, or after 40-45 days as leafy greens) and Extra Dwarf pak choi (Harvest around 2-3″ tall, 30 days after sowing)

Wasabi mustard. Photo Specialty Produce

 

Extra Dwarf pac choi, Kitazawa Seeds


Astronauts Enjoy Space Veggies and Look to the Future of Cosmic Salads Nov 2019

In experiment Veg-04B (see list below) with Veggie, a plant growth unit on the space station, the researchers tested how the quality of light and fertilizer affects the microbial safety, nutritional value and taste of mizuna. Astronauts completed the second of three harvests of this mildly tangy, leafy salad vegetable.

Growing Plants in Space | NASA, January 2020

“A lack of vitamin C was all it took to give sailors scurvy, and vitamin deficiencies can cause a number of other health problems. Simply packing some multi-vitamins will not be enough to keep astronauts healthy as they explore deep space. They will need fresh produce.

Right now on the space station, astronauts receive regular shipments of a wide variety of freeze-dried and prepackaged meals to cover their dietary needs – resupply missions keep them freshly stocked. When crews venture further into space, traveling for months or years without resupply shipments, the vitamins in prepackaged form break down over time, which presents a problem for astronaut health.

NASA is looking at ways to provide astronauts with nutrients in a long-lasting, easily absorbed form—freshly grown fresh fruits and vegetables. The challenge is how to do that in a closed environment without sunlight or Earth’s gravity.”

Microbes in Space

March 2020 Researchers examined the microbial communities growing on the Space Lettuce. A diverse community of microbes lives on typical Earth-grown plants. These may include commensals (which neither harm nor benefit their host), or other microbes. Because microbes can affect the health of plants and those who eat the crops, researchers studied the communities of fungi and bacteria growing on the lettuce.

They identified the 15 most abundant types of microbes on the leaves and 20 in the roots, and found that the identity and range of these microbes was similar to Earth-grown lettuce. This was surprising, given the unique conditions in the Space Station. The scientists had expected to find different microbial communities present.

Happily, none of the bacteria they detected are known to cause disease in humans. Tests confirmed the absence of dangerous bacteria known to occasionally contaminate crops, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. The numbers of fungal spores on them was also in the normal range for produce graded as fit for human consumption.

The Next Frontier -Roots in Space

On Nov. 27, 2020, NASA astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Kate Rubins checks out radish plants growing for the Plant Habitat-02 experiment that seeks to optimize plant growth in the unique environment of space and evaluate nutrition and taste of the plants.
Credits: NASA

See the latest (December 2020) Astronauts Harvest Radish Crop on International Space Station

Watch Radishes Growing in Space: 27 Days in 10 Seconds

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins harvested radish plants growing in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) aboard the International Space Station. She carefully wrapped each of the 20 radish plants in foil, putting them in cold storage for the return trip to Earth in 2021, for further study. Note they didn’t get to eat any.

This is the first time NASA has grown radishes on the orbiting laboratory in the APH. Radishes were chosen because they are well understood by scientists and reach maturity in only 27 days on Earth, under optimal conditions. Radishes are genetically similar to Arabidopsis, thale cress, that researchers have long studied in microgravity.

Radishes are a different kind of crop from the leafy greens that astronauts previously grew on the space station, or dwarf wheat which was the first crop grown in the APH. Root crops require certain triggers to initiate root swelling, and also flowering (not wanted if you want to eat the roots!) Growing a range of crops helps determine which plants can thrive in microgravity and be part of offering variety and nutritional balance for astronauts on long missions.

Unlike previous experiments in NASA’s APH and Veggie, which used clay pillows loaded with a slow-release fertilizer, this trial relies on precise quantities of minerals.

Sophisticated control cameras and more than 180 sensors in the grow chamber let researchers at the Kennedy Space Center monitor growth and regulate moisture levels, temperature, and carbon dioxide concentration.

For the future, NASA hopes to figure out how to grow tomatoes, peppers, beans, and berries in space. And microgreens.

For more generally space diet info, see: Space Food Photos: What Astronauts Eat in Orbit 2013

All Veggie Crop Experiments for Human Consumption 2015-2019

Overall, 15 different types of plants have grown in space in Veggie. Researchers at Kennedy Space Center have tested more than 100 crops on the ground. Click the link to read about them all.

Veggie Crops not for human consumption include more of the same crops, and also zinnias, lentils, mustards and radishes, brome grass, algae and tests of a new type of grow chamber, the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS)

4 thoughts on “Growing Vegetables in Space — Eat Like an Astronaut”

  1. Thanks for the nod to “The Martian”. Glad he knew how to grow in soil!
    Another vote for plants from soil:
    My sister-in-law, in a Bruderhof community, eats the same lettuce grown hydroponically vs. in high tunnel soil, sometimes harvested same day. She much prefers the latter. But when no soil-grown plants avail, they do choose hydroponic ones. As in space, one can’t always be choosy!
    Agreed there is much, much more to soil-plant interactions than we know, perhaps will ever understand…

    1. Hi Richard,
      Interesting to hear that your sister has directly compared the flavor of soil-grown and hydroponic lettuce of the same variety! I’d love to see some research on nutrient content and nutrient-density of crops grown both ways. I’m alarmed to learn that industrial farms are also growing hydroponic greens for cows now. Who knows what is lacking?
      Pam

  2. My daughters are obsessed with space right now and we all love gardening! Also, The Martian is one of our favorite movies! The girls and even my hubby will be so interested in this post. 🙂

    We were just talking last night about whether other life exists on other planets so this will be a fun follow-up to the conversation. 🙂

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