Science fiction has often imagined what food in space would be like. In the various Star Trek series, food has evolved from colorful cubes in the original series to being synthesized by machines. It even predicted cell-based meat—and, fresh vegetables grown in space.
In “Star Trek: Enterprise,” only certain foods can be replicated by technology. An on-board chef provides the intergalactic travelers with fruits and vegetables grown in a hydroponic greenhouse. And thanks to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), space-grown greens are becoming a reality for astronauts.
Between 2014-2016, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) grew leafy greens from surface-sterilized seeds using the Vegetable Production Systems, nicknamed Veggie.
According to research published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, space-grown lettuce is safe to eat. This unlocks new possibilities for what mealtime looks like for astronauts as well as sustainable food production in space. Theoretically, future human settlers on Mars could supplement their diets with plant-based food that they grew themselves.
What Do Astronauts Eat?
Undergoing intense physical training, floating weightlessly, and witnesses the Earth from the expanse of space, astronauts have unique experiences. The food, not so much. According to NASA, astronauts can choose from a variety of foods that they would eat at home. Macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and meat and seafood dishes are all options.
Fresh fruit, nuts, candy, brownies, and ice cream are also available. But, you won’t get the freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” you can find in science museums. In a zero-gravity environment, crumbs from freeze-dried ice cream or bread could easily fly into the ship’s controls. It’s for that very reason that astronauts use tortillas instead of bread for their sandwiches. Instead of salt and pepper shakers, they have liquid seasoning in packets.
All food comes in disposable packaging and is nonperishable to survive long missions in space.
Growing Food in Space
Although Veggie is a recent innovation, the concept of gardening in space has been in development for more than 30 years. The innovative technology would add variety to astronauts’ diets and give them access to nutritious, leafy greens.
NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler explained to Space.com last November that NASA has “been interested in growing plants as a bioregenerative approach for life support, and the plants would provide food and oxygen and could remove carbon dioxide.”
In 2015, 44 astronauts aboard the ISS sampled a harvest of “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce grown under LED lights. Four years later, in late 2019, astronauts successfully grew mizuna, or Japanese mustard greens. The remainder was stowed in a freezer for later analysis on Earth.
Despite being grown under lower gravity and more intense radiation, research revealed that space greens are free from disease-causing microbes. According to NASA, the Veggie-grown produce is richer in potassium, sodium, phosphorus, sulfur, and zinc. It is also rich in phenolics, molecules with proven antiviral, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory activity. It has about the same antioxidant content as Earth-grown produce.
“There is evidence that supports fresh foods, such as tomatoes, blueberries, and red lettuce are a good source of antioxidants. 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.
Psychological Benefits of Gardening
Veggie comes with other benefits as well. Gardening provides crew members with a much-valued recreational activity on longer-duration missions.
“Besides having the ability to grow and eat fresh food in space, there also may be a psychological benefit,” said Dr. Gioia Massa, NASA Veggie project lead. For example, future habitat-related modifications could include plant life. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that active time with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress.
Veggie is growing only greens at the moment. But, Massa explained that future tests will involve other varieties of lettuce as well as peppers and tomatoes. “The International Space Station is serving as a testbed for future long-duration missions, and these types of crop growth tests are helping to expand the suite of candidates that can be effectively grown in microgravity,” she told SpaceRef.
The Future of Food (in Space)
The team at Kennedy Space Center hopes that space gardening will become a valuable part of space travel.
“The ability to grow food in a sustainable system that is safe for crew consumption will become critical as NASA moves toward longer missions. Salad-type, leafy greens can be grown and consumed fresh with few resources,” said Dr. Christina Khodadad, a researcher at the Kennedy Space Center.
It may also be an integral part of travel to and life on Mars. Massa explained: “The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”
Will space colonies be vegan? According to a NASA factsheet, the “surface diet” on the moon and on Mars will be “similar to a vegetarian diet one would cook on Earth—minus the dairy products.”
The organization predicts that residents could grow crops. This includes multiple varieties of potatoes, wheat, rice, soybeans, peanuts, dried beans, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and herbs. Researchers involved in NASA’s Advanced Food Technology (AFT) Project are actively exploring bioregenerative solutions to create sustainable food systems in space.
NASA is expected to kick off the Mars 2020 mission this July. The Perseverance rover will be launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. On Mars, it will seek signs of ancient life and collect soil samples for a possible return to Earth.
Cell-Based Meat on Mars?
Billionaire tech entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes that Mars colonization is possible as well. Using SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket, Musk hopes to facilitate a colony of one million Martians within the next 50-100 years.
A report titled “Feeding One Million People on Mars” by Kevin Cannon and Daniel Britt at the University of Central Florida, Orlando predicted how such a colony would sustain itself. It ruled out animal agriculture and, in contrast to NASA, plant-based agriculture. Instead, the report predicted that Mars colonists would thrive on produce, insects, and cell-based meat, aka clean meat—real meat grown from animal cells.
The possibility of growing cell-based meat in space was successfully tested by Aleph Farms, an Israeli food tech company, last November. It grew small-scale muscle tissue from cow cells on the ISS using equipment supplied by Russian company, 3D Bioprinting Solutions.
On the website, Eat Like a Martian, Cannon and Britt acknowledge that further research is needed before humans begin colonizing Mars. But, the Martian diet will have several benefits: “no mass suffering of caged animals, and sharp cuts in land, water, energy use, and carbon emissions.“