One of NASA’s biggest ambitions is manned deep space travel to Mars and beyond. However, there multiple challenges which have to be met before it actually becomes feasible to have astronauts travel to Mars. Besides the current technological obstacles, another of NASA’s priority is to solve the problem of food of astronauts.
Currently, the crew of the International Space Station regularly receives supplies at certain intervals. However, they are also trying to grow their own food aboard the spacecraft. The recent success of growing six space lettuce plants is the result of the effort put in by Shane Kimbrough.
He nurtured the lettuce for the past month, from their start as just seedlings to the point that now the astronauts cut some of the leaves to add them to his mid-afternoon snack. The space cultured lettuce is known as Red Romaine.
The plants were cultivated by Kimbrough, which played the role of part-time orbit gardener. He was also received help from the specialists at the Kennedy Space Center. The astronaut accidently gave the plants too much water which delayed the growth of the plants initially but was able the address the problem thanks to the tips provided by the ground gardeners.
After the space lettuce developed enough leaves, the astronaut began harvesting them using a technique known as “cut-and-come-again”. It allows for repetitive harvests of the main product of lettuce which are the leaves. The core of the plant as well as the newer leaves are left intact so that it can produce more leaves for the next harvest which will take place around 10 days from now.
According to NASA scientists, the space lettuce plants will be able to sustain four harvests in total. The first one was meant exclusively for the enjoyment of the crew. The final harvest is expected to take place in 2017. It harvested leaves will be divided for both consumption as well as for performing several scientific studies.
The space lettuce culture and research were funded by NASA’s own Space Life and Physical Research and Applications. Their objective is to find new solutions to for the future food problems of deep space travel by applying science across multiple disciplines, in this case, agriculture and space biology.
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