Astronauts plan to grow vegetables in space

Six romaine lettuces will sprout this winter on a space station 230 miles from Earth. With our planet’s fields growing crowded and water scarce, has farming found a final frontier?

The astronauts who man the International Space Station are an impressive bunch – world class physicists, rocket scientists, crack pilots from air forces all over the world. Now they will each have the chance to add another skill to their CV: gardening.

This year, for the first time, NASA plans to start growing edible vegetables in space. The first attempts will be modest, with just six romaine lettuces planned for the garden in the sky. The plants, grown under pink LED lamps, will be ready to harvest in just 28 days – but these particular lettuces are not destined for an astronaut’s plate. Instead they will be sent back to Earth and tested to ensure that they are not a threat to the health of the space station crew.

If this experiment is successful, however, it could open a final frontier for farming. Feeding people in space is extremely expensive at present, with each kilogram of food costing about £14,000 to transport from the planet below. If astronauts could grow some of their own food it would save a lot of money. And besides, NASA points out, some homely greenery might do much to combat depression and homesickness 230 miles above the Earth.

Astronauts, then, may be munching on rocket salad within months. But that could be just the beginning. As the planet nears agricultural capacity, greenhouse gases drive temperatures up and water grows increasingly scarce, some scientists believe that off-planet farming could be the only way to avoid devastating food shortage and famine.

The groundwork is already being laid. In a barren corner of the Utah desert, an organisation called The Mars Society is developing a hi-tech greenhouse which it hopes will become a prototype for future agriculture on the moon or even Mars.

Could humans soon be giving the Red Planet a greener tint?

Harvest moon

Techno-optimists are thrilled by this idea. We’ve made the deserts of our own planet bloom, they say, so why not those of other cosmic bodies? Today, lettuces on the ISS; tomorrow, majestic wheat fields swaying in the Martian wind. After that, what’s to stop us building chicken coops, dairy farms and even homes of our own? For Earthly life, the sky is no longer the limit.

But not everybody finds this idea so exciting. Whether farming Mars efficiently is even possible is dubious, they say. But even if we managed it, that would hardly be a cause for celebration. God’s green Earth is where we belong: humans, lettuces and everything between. Instead of finding ways to export life to other planets, we should learn to take better care of our own. The real Eden is right here in our backyard.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a farmer in space? Do you think such a job will ever exist?
  2. ‘Plants are as vital for psychological health as they are for nutrition.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of an astronaut on the International Space Station. What challenges do you face in zero gravity? And what is it like to live so far from Earth?
  2. Plant some lettuces of your own: you don’t need much space, and they are a good gardening starter.

Some People Say...

“I’d pay double for cabbages from space.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I want to be a Martian farmer! Where do I sign up?
You’ll have to wait a while for that. A few months ago a company announced a scheme to send volunteers to Mars on a one-way voyage in 2020, but most experts rubbish the idea that we could colonise other planets so soon. If you really want to go to space, you have two options.
Tell me more.
The first is to become rich enough to buy a seat on the private flight: Virgin Galactic will be running the first such voyages next year. That will cost you £150,000 for a 15-minute trip.
A bit out of my price range. What’s the other option?
Train as an astronaut. That’s not easy either though: you’ll need an exceptional degree in science or engineering, a lot of diligence and proven psychological strength. But if you’re truly interested it’s absolutely worth a shot.

Word Watch

International Space Station
The largest satellite humans have ever built, the ISS was launched in 1998 as a collaborative research project jointly run by all of the world’s major space agencies. It has a capacity of six astronauts, who spend their time conducting experiments in everything from biology to astronomy.
First time
This isn’t the first instance of space horticulture: plants have been grown on the ISS for research purposes, and earlier this year one astronaut nurtured a courgette plant there. But it is the first time that vegetables have been systematically grown for the sake of consumption.
Threat to the health
One concern is that biological material like plants could harbour microbes which might disturb the sterile environment on the ISS. Another, in the longer term, is the impact of higher radiation levels in space. But scientists are fairly confident that these issues will be overcome.
Depression and homesickness
The psychological strains of living in space are intense: cramped conditions, few companions, limited room for exercise and a shifting pattern of day and night. That is one reason why astronauts do not stay on the ISS for more than six months.

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