- Astronauts in space recently enjoyed a fresh supply of vegetables, including pak choi plants.
- Crews turned them into a delicacy by marinating the leaves in garlic paste and soy sauce.
- NASA scientists told Insider how they helped develop crop production experiments.
Of the many challenges astronauts will face in future missions to the Moon and Mars, staying healthy is one of the most crucial.
But in recent days, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have found surprising solutions to sustain them on long-term missions. They recently enjoyed a fresh supply of vegetables, which was largely due to NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission chief and Expedition 64 crew member, Michael Hopkins.
Insider spoke with two NASA scientists, Matt Romeyn and Gioia Massa, working on crop production experiments known as Veg-03Kand VEG-03L. Romeyn is the leading scientist on the experiments, and Gioia is a Kennedy Space Center plant scientist.
Veg-03Kand VEG-03L was intended to test a new space crop, “Amara”
According to Romeyn, pak choi germinated so long that the plant began to bloom as part of its reproductive growth cycle. This was thanks to Hopkins’ efforts to use a small brush to pollinate plant flowers.
They followed the procedure after Hopkins’ and Romeyn discussed several options for the pollination process, including letting the flowers self-pollinate themselves.
“We were very pleased with his efforts to pollinate these flowers to look at the possibility of producing seeds from them,” Massa said.
She added that this approach “will also be very critical in the future to be able to produce new plants without getting seeds from Earth, as very important for long-term missions as a mission to Mars,” and the Moon.
Hopkins was very interested in crop production, Romeyn and Massa said, and he spent much of his free time in space taking care of them. This meant monitoring and watering the plants every day as well as determining the optimal time for harvest.
“It’s a really challenging thing, and so he had to control these plants pretty much every day and monitor their growth and adjust his approaches to growing them,” Massa said.
New harvesting methods were also among Hopkins’ discoveries in the production of space crops. This included a sustainable approach to harvesting, called “cut-and-come-again-harvesting,” which resulted in harvesting several times from the same plant that Massa explained.
“He’s just been an incredible gardener and scientist for us,” she added.
Massa said the crew ate pak choi as a side dish by marinating the leaves in garlic paste and soy sauce and then heating them up in a small food warmer.
“Delicious, plus texture or crunch,” Hopkins wrote in experimental notes after tasting the mustard plant “Amara,” which was grown in space.
According to Massa, the crew has also put the green vegetables on tacos or cheeseburgers that they have made. Previously, Massa crew members enjoyed the “Amara” mustard plant as a salad wrap. “I know the Russians had canned lobster salad, and then they made canned salad wraps with lobster salad,” she added.
For now, astronauts are focusing on the “pick-and-eat-salad” crops, which do not require cooking or processing because there is not so much ability to perform that kind of work on the space station.
Next year, there are plans to grow ‘dwarf tomatoes’, which Massa compared to cherry tomatoes.
Romeyn explained that NASA scientists on the crop production project appear to grow crops high in vitamin C and
for astronauts in space. This is because research at the Johnson Space Center found that the nutritional value of food stored in space ultimately deteriorates.
“The vitamins and quality can be broken down for some of the foods,” Massa said.
This is why much of the work done in space farming, from a nutritional and complementary perspective, is feeding crews traveling to and from Mars, Romeyn explained. “We may not have full nutrition without supplementing with the fresh crops,” he said of a future Mars mission.
NASA officials are certainly hopeful that a future crew mission to Mars is on the horizon. When the agency announced its partnership with SpaceX to return to the moon by 2024, it said in a press release that a trip to the moon would be an important step towards a possible mission to the red planet.
“It’s something I hoped I would see,” said Scott Hubbard, a SpaceX adviser who previously led NASA’s Mars program, previously told Insider in an interview.