The International Space Station (ISS) may be a remarkable piece of engineering, but it’s so drab that it needs a window box to brighten things up. That isn't possible in the vacuum of space, but NASA is doing the next best thing on Monday as it sends its Vegetable Production System (Veggie) to the space station aboard the SpaceX Dragon CRS-3 mission. However, this plant-growing chamber will be more than a horticultural experiment, it's also a bit more culinary as it lets astronauts put fresh salad on the menu.
Space farming has been a staple of science fiction with many novels set in space including a visit to a spaceship’s hydroponic gardens. Given that it’s almost impossible to carry enough food, water, and oxygen to last for a space voyage lasting years, using plants to recycle air and water while providing food seems like a logical alternative. The trick is to figure out exactly how to do so in a weightless environment where the nearest soil is millions of miles away.
Veggie is part of the 2.5 tons of cargo on SpaceX's Dragon cargo spacecraft’s launch scheduled for Monday at 4:58 PM EDT atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Officially designated the Veg-01 experiment, it was developed by Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) in Madison, Wisconsin and uses a chamber designed to grow plants inexpensively using red, blue and green LEDs.
The chamber is collapsible for transportation and storage, but expands to 11.5 in wide by 14.5 in deep (29.2 cm x 36.8 cm), which makes it the largest plant-growth chamber yet to be sent into space. To keep it simple, it uses the temperature and atmosphere in the module where its stored instead of an independent environmental control.
"The rooting pillow where seeds will germinate and nutrients and water will be supplied is one of the key technologies that will be tested during the initial deployment," says Charlie Quincy, Research Advisor to the International Space Station Director at Kennedy. "The root pillows will be returned to Earth so microbial assays can be performed. Selected plant materials will also be returned for detailed investigations."
The main task of the Veggie is to study how plants grow in weightless conditions and how to get them to do so more efficiently, but an equally important goal is to see how growing something as simple as salad greens can boost crew morale. It’s hoped that Veggie will provide astronauts with fresh food, which, as anyone who has made a long sailing passage or lived on a university student’s budget can tell you, makes up for a tinned and dehydrated diet, and provide gardening as recreation.
"Based upon anecdotal evidence, crews report that having plants around [from previous space studies] was very comforting and helped them feel less out of touch with Earth," says Gioia Massa, a project scientist at the Kennedy Space Center. "You could also think of plants as pets. The crew just likes to nurture them."
After this initial experiment, NASA will expand the “crop” with new payloads and expand Veggie’s capabilities. Eventually, the agency hopes that a system developed from it will provide food and recreation for future manned planetary missions.