If humans are to explore other worlds, they will need to be able to grow their own food.
Astronauts on the International Space Station are tilling new ground with their Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE) program, which explores the prospect of growing vegetables and plants in space and on other planets.
The Veggie, a container used for growing plants on the ISS, “is a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation,” NASA explains.
Besides providing food and psychological diversion for the astronauts, growing crops in space would also help solve one of the biggest issues in space travel: the price of eating. “It costs about $10,000 to send one pound of food from Earth to the space station,” Mashabale reported.
The program was commissioned in 2013, after astronaut Don Pettit successfully grew a zucchini while staying on the space station.
“Growing food to supplement and minimize the food that must be carried to space will be increasingly important on long-duration missions,” Shane Topham, an engineer with Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University said at the time of the launch. “We also are learning about the psychological benefits of growing plants in space – something that will become more important as crews venture farther from Earth.
In 2012, a research team from the University of Florida in Gainesville studied how plant roots developed in weightlessness. The team found that, although gravity is an important influence on root growth, plants don't need gravity to flourish.
"There's really no impediment to growing plants in microgravity, such as on a long-term mission to Mars, or in reduced-gravity environments such as in specialized greenhouses on Mars or the moon," geneticist and study co-author Anna-Lisa Paul told National Geographic.
NASA has a long history of testing plant growth in space, but the goals have been largely academic.
“Knowledge from this investigation could benefit agricultural practices on Earth by designing systems that use valuable resources, such as water, more efficiently,” NASA says about its Veggie program.