Astronauts will need reliable methods of growing their own food to support long-distance space travel and extra-planetary colonization. Research in this area has been ongoing for some time. Due to the unique effects of microgravity, growing produce in space is a significant challenge.
In the closing moments of 2020, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were able to enjoy some of their research. They not only grew radishes in microgravity for the first time but also went on to eat some of the small harvest, Digital Trends reports. The rest of the radishes were sent back to Earth so scientists can examine their growth.
Of all the experiments being done aboard the ISS, those involving fresh produce have to be the most exciting for astronauts. After all, eating preserved food for months on end gets old. The taste of a fresh vegetable is a massive reward for weeks of experiments and space “farming.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins had the privilege of harvesting the first batch of space-grown radishes. It included 20 plants and took 27 days to fully mature. The astronauts living aboard the orbiting lab were then able to eat some of the radishes before sending the remaining plants back to Earth. A new batch was also planted.
It’s worth noting that the radishes aren’t the first crops grown and eaten aboard the ISS. Astronauts have previously cultivated things like lettuce, cress, and a variety of other leafy green veggies. That being said, radishes are arguably the most substantial plant grown in space to date.
The ISS crew tended to the radishes in a special chamber designed by a company called Techshot, Digital Trends reports. The company’s CEO, Dave Reed, said in a statement, “The radishes looked great. We harvested 19, and nine were offered to the crew to eat. The other 10 radishes were frozen for return to Earth and for post-flight analysis.”
To eliminate concerns about microorganisms, the radishes were grown in clay balls. The unique growing chamber features sensors to monitor things like water levels, fertilizer usage, and light. Lead researcher Karl Hasenstein says, “The radishes grown on the space station are cleaner than anything you’d buy at the store.”
Food of the Future
Over the course of the next decade, humanity has its sights set on several lofty goals. For instance, NASA aims to send humans back to the moon—including the first woman—with its Artemis program.
These endeavors won’t require astronauts to grow their own food. In the future, however, missions to Mars and the establishment of a base on the moon will require sustainable food sources. It will be impossible to ship food to those living on Mars and inefficient to do so for anyone stationed on the moon for a prolonged period.
Fortunately, scientists are getting better at growing foods in microgravity. As the ISS’s recent crop of radishes demonstrates, the future of space food isn’t limited to leafy greens. With the right growing environment, it may be possible to cultivate more nutritious and complex produce.
Fortunately, there is still time to find these solutions. In the coming decades, this will be an important area of study for the spaceflight industry.