Updates Fridays

Let Them Eat Lettuce!

I talk about a lot of cool things happening in our world in this blog. I get excited. It’s an amazing universe out there, and the all new stuff that’s happening every day just fills me with the sort of enthusiasm that makes me jump around like a very small dog about to go for a walk.

But this week’s topic is SO COOL that I just can’t even. Seriously, I don’t have the words. This is like…it’s like…it’s like I’m eight and about to go to Disney-Christmas-summer camp. It’s like going to dinner with Leonard Nimoy and LeVar Burton. It’s like I just got a real live dragon egg for my birthday. This is possibly the coolest thing that I have ever written about.

Space. Gardening.

Okay, I know not everyone is going to be as excited about this as I am. But everyone should be at least a little excited. And I’ll tell you why.

IT’S THE FUTURE OF FOOD!

All right, let’s back it up a little. Let’s start by reading this amazing article from NASA.gov about how the crew of Expedition 44 just became the first people ever to eat vegetables grown in space. Or you can just watch this video.

There are so many cool things going on here that if I even listed them all this blog post would be a freaking book. But let’s touch on a few of them.

  1. This is not the first batch of lettuce grown in space that the astronauts are eating. It’s the second. That’s because the first batch was packaged and shipped back to earth for analysis, to make sure it was safe. Why? Because we literally don’t know what might happen with food grown in microgravity. For all we know, there’s some sort of dangerous microbe that would thrive on the plants in a low gravity environment in a way that it can’t on earth, making the food dangerous.

    That’s just one example of something that might be the case. WE JUST DON’T KNOW. And that’s crazy. Normally we rely so heavily on the collective past experience of humanity to tell us what is and isn’t a good idea. And we don’t have that here. AT ALL. So we can’t even be sure that lettuce is safe to eat until we check. How crazy is that to think about?

  2. There are some technical challenges to growing plants in microgravity. Like, containing the soil, for example. I mean, you’re not just going to have a pot full of dirt floating around, are you? And water, how do you water soil with no gravity? So NASA has developed a system that uses “pillows” of dirt, little plastic wrapped packets pre-packed with soil, fertilizer, seeds, and a wick that draws moisture through the soil to the seeds.

    Someone designed these things. On earth, with no way to test them, totally based on theory. Then they shipped them to space and hoped they worked. (Spoiler: they did.) Here’s a video that covers some more of the technical design of the set up, if you’re interested.

  3. NASA is very clearly designing the veggie project not just as a way to provide nutrition to astronauts in space. They are also thinking of the psychological benefits that gardening in space might provide to people on long term missions as well.

    NASA knows that figuring out how to keep people sane in space is a key factor to designing any long-range space missions, like the fabled mission to mars. Fresh food might go a long way to keeping people happy as well as healthy on such a trip. And more then that, the act of gardening itself has HUGE psychological benefits, benefits that NASA is trying to maximize in their design.

    For example, the LEDs that provide the light for the plants to photosynthesize only really need to be red and blue to function, because these are the wavelengths that plants on earth actually use. But under the crazy purple light these LEDs produce, the plants don’t LOOK nice. So they’ve added green LEDS as well, to make the gardening experience more enjoyable for the astronauts.

    Aesthetics. They matter.

  4. Flowers. They sent flowers. Zinnias, specifically.

    Yes, they did this partially to study the way pollination will work in microgravity. That will be important later, when we’re trying to grow fruit. But given that we know they are thinking about the psychological benefits of gardening in space, are you going to tell me that they didn’t just want some flowers to brighten up the place?

  5. This whole project is going to have some amazing applications for Earth-based agriculture. The possibilities of “produce factories” in urban environments to provide fresh produce without relying on long distance shipping and distribution are huge. And the whole design is meant to be both low energy and water conserving, and therefore very environmentally friendly.

    This could revolutionize the way we deal with agricultural support for major urban centers. Finding ways of making food cheaper and lowering the environmental impact of its production is possibly the most important category of innovation that there could be for life ON EARTH. Thanks NASA!

Okay, okay, I know this post is getting really long. Like I said, I could write a book about how huge this is. But I’ll stop here.

All I’ll say in closing is, remember: “Science Never Sleeps.” Cheers.