NASA is currently testing other vegetables to see how they fare in the same device, including peppers, radishes, and dwarf tomatoes, said Gioia Massa, a scientist at Kennedy Space Center and the head of the Veggie project.
According to Massa, Veggie is NASA’s first step towards creating a “bio-regenerative life-support system” for a spaceflight to Mars—an artificial ecosystem that behaves like a mini-Earth. The flora will provide people with the minerals and vitamins they need. In return, the people will exhale the carbon dioxide that the plants will breathe in.
For the people it feeds, though, Veggie’s bigger draw is the diversity of texture that it offers. The typical astronaut diet currently “doesn’t have too many elements that are crunchy,” Massa explains—things like toast and crackers create crumbs, which can be hard to contain without the help of gravity. But the ability to grow vegetables in space may finally allow astronauts to introduce crunch into an otherwise mostly soft diet. Lettuce may not be the most exciting vegetable on Earth, but in space, it’s a game-changer.
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Twenty minutes outside the small town of Hanksville, Utah, is a collection of canyons, mesas, and buttes called the San Rafael Swell, a structure whose stark landscape looks strikingly similar to that of Mars. In fact, it’s one of a small handful of places where one can experience Mars on Earth.
The San Rafael Swell is home to one of two research stations run by the Lakewood, Colorado-based Mars Society, a non-profit organization that promotes the human settlement of the Red Planet. The purpose of the lab is to simulate various aspects of the planet’s environment and help scientists understand how to prepare for life on Mars. (The other station is on Devon, an island in the Canadian Arctic.)
The core of the Mars Desert Research Station is a two-level cylindrical habitat, 36 feet high and 26 feet wide, mounted on stilts. Downstairs is the science and engineering laboratory; upstairs are the living quarters, a social area, and a kitchenette, built to hold up to six people. Scientists from across the country can apply for a stay at the research station, spending two weeks inside the habitat at a time.
The habitat is connected by an above-ground tunnel to the “GreenHab,” a greenhouse that grew carrots, hops, quinoa, green onions, cilantro, and basil until it was damaged by fire last year. (Plans to rebuild it are underway.) The vegetables there grew in a replica of Martian soil, said Nick Orenstein, the GreenHab coordinator: a rust-colored dust rich in volcanic ash.
But growing crops is only one part of the equation. The people living on Mars will also have to know what to do with their ingredients—farmed, delivered, or otherwise.
Two years ago, NASA launched HI-SEAS on the slopes of a volcanic mountain in Hawaii. There, it conducts a series of studies to determine what would keep explorers mentally and physically healthy over the course of a life spent on Mars.