Popular Science

NASA is learning the best way to grow food in space

Can gardens help astronauts go farther?

“Our plants aren’t looking too good,” astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted from the International Space Station on December 27, 2015. He was right: The attached picture showed four baby zinnias bathed in magenta light. Three of the four leafy stalks were discolored and curling in on themselves. The station’s garden was struggling to recover from a mold problem. It’s an issue familiar to terrestrial gardeners. And while on Earth, the problem means a trip to the local nursery for replacements, in space you can’t do that.

vegetables in astronaut helmet

Space gardens will be essential someday if astronauts are to go beyond low-earth orbit or make more than a quick trip to the moon. They can't carry all the food they need.

The Voorhes

The zinnias, brightly colored flowers in the daisy family, were part of an experiment called Veggie, whose ultimate mission is to provide crews with a long-term source of food. In prior tests, astronauts had successfully harvested lettuce. The zinnias had a longer growth ­period—60 to 80 days—and then would bloom, producing neon-hued blossoms that look like they belong in a psychedelic corsage. They were practice for something finickier and tastier than leafy greens: tomatoes. If station crews were ever going to grow something that intricate, they needed to figure out—among other things— how to vanquish mold.

Veggie is a relatively uncomplicated way for astronauts to develop their green thumbs. “It’s a very simple system,” says Gioia Massa, one of the project’s lead scientists. “It doesn’t control much at all.” Instead, the humans do.

Space gardening will be essential someday if space travelers are to go beyond low-Earth orbit or make more than a quick trip to the moon. They can’t carry on all the food they need,

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