Humanity has taken an important step towards deeper space missions with the successful cultivation of edible produce (specifically for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. As The Guardian reports:
The experiment, officially called Veg-01 but nicknamed Veggie by NASA, is meant to study plant growth in a microgravity environment and to improve the methods that could grow produce in orbit.
“Growing food will be critical to future long-duration spaceflight”, NASA’s Tabatha Thompson told the Guardian. “So this is an important experiment not just for life on the space station but also for future deep space missions on our journey to Mars”.
NASA performed an earlier version of the Veggie experiment last year, after which the astronauts brought plants back to Earth for analysis.
Those plants were “as clean if not cleaner” than grocery store fare, said NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz, leading to the current experiment. The astronauts will package up half the plants and freeze them for a return to the planet for testing.
In addition to the obvious benefits for years-long manned missions, this micro-agriculture will provide astronauts with healthier and more satisfying food. There are psychological perks as well: the growing and preparation of food can be therapeutic, and having a variety of fresh foods could be more emotionally comforting (if anyone needs comfort food, it is someone taking the long haul in space).
In the early days of the Veggie experiment almost three years ago, Massa said that simply having plants around the space module made astronauts feel more at home.
“Based upon anecdotal evidence, crews report that having plants around was very comforting and helped them feel less out of touch with Earth”, Massa said. “You could also think of plants as pets. The crew just likes to nurture them”.
Improving the expandable Veggie scaffold, about the size of a stovetop, could also help agriculture on Earth, Nasa argues, by making it possible to grow plants in efficient, vertical “plant factories” that maximize available light and water.
This is definitely a big step in the right direction. With all its hardships and challenges, long-term space travel will be a lot more feasible — on both a technical and psychological level — with advancements like this.