Truly, the gringa enjoys a fresh salad of spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, with some walnuts tossed in, crumbled feta on top, and any assortment of chunky raw vegetables like zucchini, red bell pepper, asparagus, and onion. As a space gringa could I get my salad fix satisfied? Well, that’s exactly what the NASA engineers and scientists based in Huntsville, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center have been working on for decades.
These galactic gardeners have created a space agricultural system for the International Space Station (ISS). The astronauts on ISS have been testing this technology which will ultimately find its way to Mars where it will create the food of the future. The ISS system is called the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). It features a water recovery system and an oxygen generation system, the two basic necessities not only for human life, but also for plant life.
In order to sustain a long duration mission such as a Mars mission, astronauts will need to be able to supplement the food supplies they transport with them. One experiment called “Lada Validating Vegetable Production Unit” (boy is that a mouthful!) involves using a small greenhouse type contraption that has automated water and light controls. Lada’s goals are: to determine if space greens are safely edible; will space microorganisms grow on the space greens and if so, how can this risk be minimized; how can space greens be safely sanitized after harvest; discover methods for optimal production.
The most recent space greens to be harvested are a Japanese lettuce variety called “Mizuna”. The shuttle Discovery made a salad delivery to Earth in April. Along with the salad delivery was a report on findings based on the cultivation of the lettuce by two different methods, the “old” method versus the “new improved” method. The funny thing is that a sensor malfunction that went undetected resulted in a higher yield of lettuce. A mistake produced more. So much for the painstaking methods of a science experiment!
What happened after the sensor went on the blink was that the “root” module (no pot of dirt!) received much more water than it was supposed to. When cultivation “on the ground” determined that it would be better to minimize water and salt accumulations on the roots, this was the plan up on ISS. They’ve discovered the “actual” growing of the plant compared to the “land based” simulation did not result in identical scenarios.
It seems by overwatering the roots nutrients moved faster throughout the plant which resulted in faster fertilization release. Considering the plants are moving water and nutrients in micro-gravity, it makes sense to the gringa that more water would then be better. Water is kind of like a “vehicle” which facilitates the transport of the nutrition.
The gringa asks, “What does all this mean? I know that this will help Martian colonists get their fiber, but how does this help the rest of mankind that gets left behind?” Well, as climate change progresses, agriculture will become more of a challenge. We simply cannot continue producing crops according to the same old tried and true methods. Climate controlled greenhouses will need to be advanced to the point of sustaining a world population on the produce and vegetables it produces. The data from these experiments is critical to develop the type of technology that will save the Earth’s population from hunger.
These agricultural experiments have been taking place cooperatively between the United States and Russia for twenty years. Together, the scientists of two nations who have had an often hostile, cold, cantankerous relationship have ignored politics to quietly work together to solve the world’s problems. The gringa really likes that, even more than the space lettuce.
Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov