CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The local-food movement is going orbital.
An experiment led by Kennedy Space Center scientists will give International Space Station astronauts a garden from which they might one day pick and eat their own salads.
Dubbed "Veggie," the Vegetable Production System will attempt to grow six heads of red romaine lettuce, at first not for astronaut consumption.
But if tests on the ground deem it safe to eat, the crew could be cleared to munch on a second batch of leafy greens grown inside the station's European Columbus module.
"We want to start to develop the ability to have a food system on orbit, so Veggie's a really good first step," said Gioia Massa, the project's lead scientist from KSC's ISS ground processing and research division.
Veggie won't grow the first orbital edibles: Russian cosmonauts in the past have eaten plants from smaller gardens on both the ISS and Mir space station.
Not so for U.S. astronauts, who rely on food from plastic pouches or tin cans, except for the occassional piece of fruit sent up in resupply ships. Strict NASA food safety regulations haven't yet established guidelines for cleaning and eating fresh produce.
The Veggie project continues KSC's long-standing but little-known leadership in plant research within NASA.
"Most people don't have any idea that that's what we do," said Massa, a 39-year-old Cape Canaveral resident. "They think we just launch rockets."
The 15-pound Veggie growth chamber looks like a glass box that glows purple when LED lights at the top are turned on.
Developed by Orbital Technologies Corp. of Madison, Wis., the box is actually a transparent plastic bellows that folds flat for launch but expands upward like an accordion as plants grow.
"Plant pillows" packed with a dry soil-like clay, time-release fertilizer and seeds — for two red romaine crops and one of zinnia flowers — that will fly up with the hardware on SpaceX's next resupply launch. Expected this past Sunday, the launch has been delayed until at least March 30.
Astronauts will set up the garden on the station, but otherwise need to do little more than add water to its reservoir.
Within a month, it's hoped that six loose lettuce plants will sprout and grow to about six inches.
Wearing gloves, astronauts will then harvest the plants with forceps and scissors, wrap them in foil and seal them in a bag for return to Earth in a freezer on the next SpaceX resupply mission, tentatively planned in June.
Scientists at KSC will analyze the space crop for potentially harmful bacteria and microorganisms, plus any changes in antioxidant and mineral levels. If it's clean, they'll work with the astronaut office, flight surgeons, microbiologists and other personnel to win approval for crews to eat the second crop.
Red romaine was chosen in large part because of its low natural microbial levels. Also, it has grown well in test chambers on the ground, looks pretty and is tasty to most people.
"It's not some sort of a weird crop that nobody would eat," said Massa.
Radishes, by contrast, also grew well but did not make the cut. They have much higher microbial levels and are not as widely liked.
In between lettuce crops, the crew may grow six zinnias, in a five-color blend, for pleasure and to generate interest in space and gardening.
The Veggie concept started out as a garden for astronauts, but evolved into a system scientists now are proposing to use for a variety of experiments involving crop plants or petri dishes.
"Once we demonstrate that it works, we hope to get a lot of really interesting investigations in there, and hopefully develop some sort of a pick-and-eat salad concept as well in the future," said Massa.
A more advanced Veggie chamber could be developed to replace the bare bones version flying up first.
Beyond the small initial harvest, astronauts might also enjoy simply watching the plants grow as they go about their daily tasks, and helping to care for them.
"I think that's going to be one of the biggest benefits," Massa said. "When you're living in an environment like the ISS, having green growing plants could be a really nice thing."
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