NASA & Your Food: Farming Lessons from Outer Space

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Did you know that oats, peas, beans, and barley grow in the microgravity of outer space? Indeed they do, and these astronaut crops are having some very interesting effects on earthbound farming as well. NASA researchers are taking the things they’ve learned about extreme farming in outer space (no natural light, no water source, no pollinators, very limited space) and applying them to farming challenges right here, planetside.

Thank goodness for Gourmet’s online archives! In 2009 Christy Harrison wrote a story called “Space Farming Comes Down To Earth”, which included a fascinating slideshow on the evolution of space food through the years. (My favorite caption is on the 5th photo: “According to NASA’s archive, ‘Cernan appears to be eating chocolate pudding.'”)

Definitely check out the article, as well as the NASA fact sheet “Food For Space Flight” (“Flour tortillas are a favorite bread item of the Shuttle astronauts”) but in the meantime here are a few of my favorite insights:

  • Anecdotal evidence aboard shuttles suggests that “a diet of healthy, tasty foods and the presence of plants both help to decrease the stress of long missions”- a good thing for all of us to remember, especially in noisy/crowded/stressful cities.

  • NASA scientists have created hydroponic systems that are not only soil-free, of course, but “could pull double duty as water purifiers: Research has shown that plants in NFT hydroponic cultures can process soap-containing water with minimal effects on plant growth. ‘You can take waste water and regenerate that into potable drinking water, as opposed to doing it with chemical means.'” You could water your garden with your showering/dish-washing water, and end up with vegetables and drinking water!

  • One of the NASA researchers and a colleague at Purdue University are working “to harness ‘waste heat’ from industrial sites to warm the soil in cold climates, making it possible to grow crops year-round.” Tomatoes, in January, in Chicago. Come on, science! You can do it!

My favorite aspect of all this is that because of the limitations these scientist have had to work with over the years, they focus on turning what’s already available (waste water, excess heat) into something usable. Rather than seeming frighteningly or excessively high-tech, it’s reassuringly pragmatic.

(Image: Specialized LED lighting & green leaf lettuce grown under overhead LED lights from
Gourmet, courtesy of GIOIA Massa/Mitchell Laboratory of Controlled Environment Agriculture/Purdue University)