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They Did What?: 

Astronauts grow space lettuce


Scrumptious lettuce, space style

Scrumptious lettuce, space style

What comes to mind when someone says “space food”? Vacuum-packed gels that look like something you’d apply to a sports injury? Freeze-dried foods that crumble like a dry Pot Noodle? Not anymore. That’s because astronauts on the International Space Station have become the first to grow their own lettuce in outer space. So now they can get at least one of their five-a-day.

It has been a long time coming, mind you. The Veg-01 mini-greenhouse experiment started over a year ago, back in May 2014. Astronauts grew Outredgeous, a type of red romaine lettuce. The first batch went to earth for safety testing. Then NASA astronaut Scott Kelly started a second crop in early July.

Not quite as convenient as nipping to Tesco at lunchtime.

Naturally, the growing conditions were quite different to here on earth. The space lettuce developed a deep red colour due to being grown in an environment lit by red and blue LEDs. Because of the weightlessness, it wasn’t grown in a standard plot of soil. Instead, NASA seeded a ‘rooting pillow’ containing all the essential nutrients and dirt. It took the lettuce 33 days to grow.

Harvesting the leaves isn’t as simple as tearing some off and plonking them on the plate. They had to be swabbed for testing first, and then placed in a plastic bag to stop them floating away. Otherwise they could clog the instruments, as Homer Simpson’s potato chips did when he went to space. (“Careful! They’re ruffled!”)

Space-grown crops are more nutritious than traditional space food. But their usefulness could extend beyond that. They also recycle air, and could provide the astronauts with something to do during those long nights up in space.

But the important question: how does it taste? Kelly compared it to arugula, or rocket, as we call it here in the UK. How fitting, eating rocket in a space ship.

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