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NASA astronauts to eat the first vegetables grown in space


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(NaturalNews) On August 11, five astronauts on the International Space Station became the first human beings to eat vegetables that were grown in space. The five dined on romaine lettuce grown onboard the space station as the latest phase in a NASA experiment being conducted in a lab named "Veggie."

The cultivation and consumption of the lettuce is part of NASA's Journey to Mars program, which aims to allow humans to reach an asteroid by 2025 and walk on the surface of Mars by 2030.

"Future spaceflight missions could involve four to six crew members living in a confined space for an extended period of time with limited communication," said NASA's Dr. Gioia Massa, payload scientist for the Veggie lab. "The further and longer humans go away from Earth the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits."

Gardening in zero gravity

For the first vegetable grown in space, NASA scientists selected a hardy variety of red romaine lettuce. The seeds were delivered in April 2014 by SpaceX, a private company owned by billionaire Elon Musk that contracts with NASA for cargo runs to the space station. In the Veggie lab, astronaut Scott Kelly was responsible for growing the lettuce.

Kelly is also taking part in another experiment in which he lives on the space station for a year while his twin brother stays on Earth. Doctors will compare the changes in the two men's bodies over that time.

The lettuce seeds were planted in rooting pillows containing both soil and fertilizer. They were watered with a special subsoil irrigation system because water cannot be poured in zero gravity. In October 2014, the first batch of lettuce was harvested and sent back to Earth for safety analysis.

When food scientists gave the all-clear, Kelly planted a second batch of lettuce. This batch was grown under red, blue and green lights. According to NASA, the green lights were needed to make the lettuce "look like edible food rather than weird purple plants".

Thirty-three days later, Kelly harvested the lettuce using tongs. Before eating the food, the astronauts wiped it off with citric-acid based sanitizing wipes.

Staving off space insanity?

The ability to grow food in space is considered an essential component to enable longer space missions, let alone the establishment of any kind of longer-term human presence on the moon or other planets. After all, the packaged food that NASA supplies to astronauts only has a shelf life of two to three years. For a research station on Mars, that might be less than the time frame in which it is feasible to send costly resupply shuttles.

In addition, fresh food has health benefits that simply cannot be provided by packaged food. NASA Veggie scientist Ray Wheeler noted the high antioxidant content of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"Having fresh food like these available in space could have a positive impact on people's moods and also could provide some protection against radiation in space," Wheeler said.

The ability to grow food in space also provides the ability for "recreational gardening," NASA said, as a way to improve astronauts' mental health.

The emotional and psychological benefits are not secondary; being millions of miles away from home in the most hostile environment possible places enormous strain on the human mind.

The first two batches of lettuce are only the beginning for the Veggie lab, Massa said.

"We have upcoming experiments that will look at the impacts of light quality on crop yield, nutrition and flavor."

The research might also benefit people down on Earth, she said. Findings from the studies could lead to new innovations in techniques for growing plants in urban settings, for example, or new water conservation technologies.

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