Growing gardens isn’t just for the earth-bound. Astronauts on the International Space Station have the opportunity to enjoy a little greenery using Veggie, which is a piece of technology we developed for NASA. Veggie enabled NASA astronauts to eat fully grown-in-space produce for the first time in 2015. The first crop was lettuce. Since then, astronauts have been able to grow produce like Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard and pak choi.
It’s exciting for astronauts to grow produce they can eat, but it’s also beneficial to grow experimental crops. Last summer they successfully grew radishes, and this summer, cotton! According to University of Wisconsin–Madison botanist Simon Gilroy, the scientist who conducted the experiment, cotton uses huge amounts of water on earth. He told UW-Madison News he and his team wanted to find out if there are elements related to gravity that could be changed on Earth to redesign the cotton root system to make it more efficient.
We asked Gilroy why he thinks it’s so important to grow new seeds in space, and he said, “To take an extreme example, a sunflower and oak tree are both plants and they share a lot of features. However, in many ways, how they grow and react to their environments is very different. Collecting data on the spaceflight responses from a varied set of plants as possible will help us understand what common features plants growing in space have and what is unique to that particular plant variety.”
While many people are surprised to learn plants are growing in space, this is something both Gilroy and our own plant scientist, Dr. Bob Morrow, have dedicated their life’s work to. They had a similar answer about why we should determine how plants grow in space in the first place. Morrow says space is the only environment where fundamental processes can be studied without the overriding effects of gravity. Gilroy echoed that and emphasized its importance, saying, plants sense gravity and it shapes their growth; roots go down and seedlings go up. To fully understand the impact of gravity on plant biology, the obvious experiment is to remove gravity and ask what changes as the plant develops.
Growing plants in space is far different from your backyard garden. Morrow says techniques had to be developed to water plants without it leaking in the weightless environment. The lack of gravity also means plants need a cue to grow upwards. A light spectrum above the seeds acts as a guide. Just like on Earth, seeds need something to grow in. Plant pillows are sewed in our Madison, Wisconsin facility, and are filled with a clay-like substance and fertilizer.
Morrow says working with Veggie has been a rewarding aspect of his career. He says, “I like the fact that it has enabled so many different plant biology experiments to be completed on the Space Station, everything from production of edible crops to Petri-plate experiments looking at fundamental plant physiology and genetics.” Morrow tells us plant growth knowledge increases the likelihood of developing useful applications for medicine, agriculture, biotechnology and environmental management. So what’s next? He’d like to see potatoes and strawberries grown in space because they are popular crops, but are difficult to grow from seed and therefore more difficult to handle in the space environment.