Space Gardens! How Astronauts Grow Fresh Food without Sunlight or Gravity

Living in space may sound pretty cool, but after weeks and weeks of eating freeze-dried packaged foods, many astronauts understandably crave the flavor, texture, color, and nutrients of fresh produce. Just like we all need to eat fresh food on earth, fruits, vegetables, herbs, greens, and flowers are vital to our health and happiness no matter where we are in space. 

As we begin to explore even more of the solar system with outposts on Mars and beyond, cultivating our own food on spaceships and other worlds will get more and more important. That’s why NASA and other international space agencies devote a lot of research energy to growing plants in conditions that are very different from how we farm on earth.

The International Space Station is home to the Vegetable Production System—known simply as Veggie—a small space garden the size of a suitcase that helps NASA astronauts study growing food in space (and boosting the health and happiness of everyone on the space station). 

Veggie was installed in 2014 by Astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson with red romaine lettuce seeds, and has so far produced two additional types of lettuce, plus Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, and red Russian kale. Astronaut Scott Kelly also grew zinnias in Veggie to bring a little earthly beauty to life in orbit. The NASA team on earth at Kennedy Space Center are working on bringing tomatoes, peppers, and berries to the ISS. 

So how do they do it? The plants in Veggie grow in specially designed pillows of clay-based soil and fertilizer, which help distribute a balance of water, nutrients, and air around the plant roots. According to NASA, without the pillows to do this important work, the plants would either drown in water or be engulfed by air because of the way fluids in space tend to form bubbles.

Without gravity, plants rely on light to know how much and in what direction to grow, so astronauts use LED lights that emit light that helps the plants grow. The Veggie chamber typically glows magenta pink thanks to the way the plants reflect and absorb the light!

So the next time you imagine “Astronaut food,” think beyond freeze-dried ice cream—the salad on your table is perhaps a better representation!

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