Growing Vegetables in Space

Veggie on ISS

There are two lessons every new Sierra Space team member learns when they join us. The first? Everything is harder in space—problems that seem easy to fix on Earth must be adapted to work in the microgravity of low-Earth orbit (LEO). Things must also use as little space and energy as possible. 

The second lesson is that the leap into the Orbital Age requires advancements in every facet of how humans live and work off-world, not just in specific areas like how we’ll come home from LEO in the future. Part of this holistic approach is to develop systems to grow fresh vegetables for consumption in LEO. 

To this end, Sierra Space is leading the charge to build the Astro Garden® of tomorrow. Crew systems augmenting life support functions and resource recovery are critical to the success of next generation tech like the LIFE® habitat to power the Orbital Age. Growing vegetables in LEO is a major contributor to this mission, making it a subject of interest for decades. 

But like most things, growing vegetables in space isn’t as easy as on Earth. For one thing, you can’t have a traditional garden in orbit—you’d end up with dirt, seeds, and water floating around the station, wrecking sensitive equipment. Likewise, hydroponic and aeroponic farming techniques face challenges in microgravity. Despite these concerns, Sierra Space has developed successful space farming programs producing a variety of edible vegetables.

The Sierra Space answer to growing fresh food in space began with the Vegetable Production System, affectionately known as “Veggie.” Veggie units have been installed on the International Space Station (ISS) since 2014 and are well on their way to growing the first space salad

This is no easy feat. Veggie fights an uphill battle to produce food in LEO because microgravity complicates an already tricky proposition: growing delicious and healthy fare far from the nutritious soil, abundant water, and natural light terrestrial farming affords. Yet, like most every technical problem the Sierra Space team has faced, growing food in space became possible thanks to some slick engineering.

As you’ve probably guessed, growing vegetables in space takes more than a cup filled with soil. Veggie must contend with the requirements of using very little space and resources while also keeping the crew compartment free of contaminants. 

The ingenuous solution incorporated into Veggie is an almost completely self-contained system. The most important piece of the Veggie puzzle is the plant pillow, a bag made of Nomex and Kevlar containing growth media, allowing astronauts to securely inject water into the system. Seeds are glued onto special wicks attaching to the plant pillow. 

Then the magic of space farming begins. The Veggie system uses programmable light sources to stimulate growth, passively providing water to plants as needed, and regulating the temperature and carbon dioxide levels available to the crops using cabin air from the station. 

The results so far have been a great triumph. NASA has successfully tested growing a variety of vegetables aboard the ISS using Veggie. Healthy foods like romaine lettuce, mustard greens, and Chinese cabbage have also been harvested in LEO, much to the delight of the astronauts who enjoyed such goodies with their meals. 

More recent experiments have focused on tomatoes and other vegetables possessing a more complicated growth cycle than leafy greens. While these tests may be fascinating to those with a green thumb, the rest of us may wonder, “Why does it matter if we can grow mustard greens and tomatoes in orbit?” 

The answer is growing food in LEO is vital to humanity’s future in space. Numerous benefits abound of functional gardens in LEO. First and foremost for the early days of the Orbital Age, astronauts will be less dependent on frequent fresh food deliveries by the Dream Chaser® space plane. 

Also, space gardening will produce a tremendous positive psychological impact on astronauts of all types. We’ve seen this in action already. Kjell Lindgren, aboard the ISS in 2015, enthusiastically tweeted out a picture of the romaine lettuce he used to make the first space cheeseburger. 

What’s more, caring for plants, then enjoying the fruits of the labor will bring a crucial mental boost to astronauts who’ve been away from home for an extended period. Best of all, the future of the Astro Garden is already taking shape thanks to the lessons of Veggie.

Although Veggie has functioned well, it still isn’t capable of scaling to the level needed for full Astro Gardens in the Orbital Age. Sierra Space has therefore introduced XROOTS®, or eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System as a completely hydroponic and aeroponic solution. It will eventually produce a wide range of vegetables to augment daily diets. Every LIFE habitat will have such a garden, resulting in many space pioneers eager to eat the vegetables they grew themselves. 

Whether you’re fascinated by growing food in space or have never even tried a garden here on Earth, it’s likely your skills and interest in space can be put to good use at Sierra Space, making LEO available to all. Please visit the Sierra Space careers page today to learn more.

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