Future Tense

Eat Your Space Vegetables

Before they eat you.

Space Lettuce
Astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly sample lettuce harvested for the first time aboard the International Space Station on Aug. 10, 2015.

Photo courtesy of NASA via Reuters

In what was tweeted as a giant leap for deep space exploration, NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have eaten red romaine lettuce that they grew on board. Crew member Scott Kelly’s tweet (“It was one small bite for man, one giant leap for #NASAVEGGIE…”) was obviously meant to mimic Neil Armstrong’s historic first words from the surface of the moon. Yet Kelly missed the chance to not only correct the quote (Armstrong long asserted that he had actually said the much more poetic phrase “one small step for a man”) but to include the foliage pun “one giant leaf.” This tells us that, six months into Kelly’s year in space, he is spending too much time on scientific experiments and not enough time on tweet drafting.

Literary snark aside, this is a big deal. Astronauts can now grow edible food in space. This has important ramifications for long-term trips, like to Mars, which is well outside GrubHub’s delivery radius. The lettuce is a vital “pick and eat” food (because there’s no cooking allowed on spaceships), and plans are in the works for other high-yield leafy greens, as well as dwarf tomatoes, dwarf peppers, and dwarf plums, presumably for travel to dwarf planets. Once we get to Mars, NASA expects to expand the harvest to include beans, sweet potatoes, and white potatoes (which we already knew about thanks to the trailer for the Matt Damon movie The Martian, based on the novel).

Space food has always had two defining characteristics: It can’t take up a lot of space (something that’s at a premium in, ironically, space) and it can’t make crumbs that get loose in the microgravity environment (something astronaut Gus Grissom learned when he munched on a corned beef sandwich smuggled onto Gemini 3). Since the earliest days of John Glenn squeezing applesauce into his mouth from a toothpaste tube, space food has been pretty uniformly unappetizing. Over time, new technologies (like freeze-drying, thermostabilization, and Apollo 11’s space-age spoon-bowl) have made space dining more palatable, but even Emeril Lagasse’s attempts to kick up a 2006 Space Shuttle menu got notch-blocked by his inability to use real rum in his bread pudding recipe. So the addition of fresh vegetables to the menu is a welcome one.

The shipboard garden has other benefits besides the nutritional and space-saving ones. It is believed that constant gardening can enhance the day-to-day comfort of the crew and is a proven way to help them pass the time and relax. (Of course there are other plants that can accomplish these goals more creatively.)

Space gardening itself is surprisingly simple. Nutrient-filled “pillows” allow the seeds to take root while red, blue, and green LEDs provide the necessary light. But it’s not all “sweetness and light” in the botany bay. Just because you can grow it, doesn’t mean you can eat it. In 2014, the ISS greenhouse planted a Japanese lettuce called Mizuna that was harvested, frozen, and returned to Earth for analysis without being eaten because crops grown in open-air spaceship environments are susceptible to microorganisms. Because of weightlessness, you can’t clean produce by rinsing it in the sink and Purell makes a poor salad dressing, so microbial cling-ons are a real threat. The ISS did get the go-ahead to produce more produce. But when missions venture outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, exposure to solar radiation will present new problems. So the question is raised: What exactly do we have to fear from space veggies?

Space gardens have been tended for over a decade without incident. With no science fact to plant the seeds of worry, we must rely on science fiction to give us something to fear (besides fear itself). Unfortunately, science fiction has also proven surprisingly barren in planting said seeds. In fact, most fictional space gardens have been peaceful and productive trope-iaries. The most vast space garden appeared in the film Silent Running, a 1972 enviro-fable that depicted the demise of all of Earth’s vegetation, relegated to a fleet of orbital greenhouses under the watchful eye of Bruce Dern and a trio of waddling drones. There was also a pleasant garden in the 2007 movie Sunshine, but its function was to provide oxygen (not food) and its only dramatic purpose was to catch fire.

Still, there have been a few examples of “space vegetables gone bad.” In the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing (From Another World), the man-sized space monster that torments the Arctic-bound scientists was referred to as an “intellectual carrot.” That same year, the novel The Day of the Triffids postulated an Earth overcome by an aggressive mutant plant (though it’s unclear whether the offending veggies were created in a Russian lab or arrived via meteor shower). Then, in 1955, the novel The Body Snatchers appeared (followed a year later by the first of four film adaptations), presenting the concept of “space spores” that come to Earth intent on replacing humans with identical “pod people.” Clearly, as time passed, the danger got smaller and smaller (literally and literarily), culminating in 1969 with the chillingly realistic space-microbe-qua-mass-killer novel (and later film) The Andromeda Strain.

So the biggest fear from space agriculture (in both fact and fiction) would seem to be the bugs that might be brought back to Earth. But that’s a problem that should be easily solved by simply eating the vegetation in space. Then again, one of the most terrifying sequences in the history of science-fiction film involves something eaten en route: namely the dinner scene in Alien in which John Hurt falls victim to something he ate in transit that (violently) disagrees with him. Admittedly, it was a meat-based creature, and it wasn’t grown inside a spaceship (except that it was grown inside John Hurt who was inside a spaceship). But no discussion of the overlap between space food and abject terror would be complete without a mention of it.

What, then, justifies space veggie-phobia? I would submit it is copycat cuisine. After all, there was a time when Tang, space food sticks, and astronaut ice cream were all the rage. The fact that NASA is growing lettuces like Mizuna and red romaine (instead of good old mundane iceberg) means that the creatures most likely to be attracted are not microorganisms but, in fact, celebrity chefs. Inevitably, the haughtiest of haute cuisine artists will replace trendy menu items like ramps and aioli with space-sourced foodstuffs. First, upscale molecular gastronomy restaurants will serve tapas like deconstructed mission-flown LED-lit slaws. Then, “fast/casual” eateries will host spaceship-to-table zero-gravity salad bars. And, eventually, we will all be inundated in every medium of advertising by the “out of this world” taste of the McOrbit Meal: a spacegardenburger served with a side of Martian fries. Run!

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.