Three fresh 'nauts have arrived at the International Space Station, bringing it up to its regular complement of six - and clearing the way for the first off-Earth farming.
The arriving 'nauts are NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui. The trio took off from Baikonur and docked at the station at 03:45 AM this morning (UK local time), after orbiting Earth four times. Hatches will be opened at about 17:25 PM today (Thursday).
These new hands will be joining Expedition 44 station commander Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos and Scott Kelly of NASA who have been aboard the complex since March 27. Expedition 44 is planned to continue until September when there will be a veritable 'naut jamboree at the station, with nine personnel briefly aboard before Padalka hands over to Kelly as station commander and heads back to Earth.
One of the highlights of Expedition 44 will be the first noshing of space produce grown locally on the station in the aptly-named VEGGIE experiment (no backronym, seemingly*). In addition to their usual freeze-dried delicacies, washed down with refreshing draughts of their own reprocessed urine, Padalka and his team will also chow down on small amounts of romaine lettuce harvested from the blue glowing root mats of VEGGIE.
Expedition 44 crew members are expected to be the first to harvest and eat crops grown aboard the station, another necessary advance for astronauts traveling on deep space missions. Astronauts will be allowed to eat half of the second crop of lettuce in the Veggie investigation, freezing the other half for a return to Earth where scientists will analyze the plants and compare them to a control set grown at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
There have been various other efforts to grow crops in space, including the precursor Biomass Production System (BPS) which was tried out on the ISS in 2002 and unsuccessful personal attempts to grow edible food by 'nauts in their own time. Various plant experiments were also carried out aboard Russian spacecraft including the Mir space station back in the twentieth century. However as far as we here on the Reg space-gardening desk have been able to find out this is the first instance of 'nauts actually eating space-grown produce, certainly in any quantity.
As any devotee of reasonably accurate scientifiction will know, serious space travel and habitation on other planets of the solar system is going to require much more effort along these lines.
"The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits," says Dr Gioia Massa, NASA boffin in charge of VEGGIE. "I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario."
Trusty green plants aren't just good for eating, as the doc points out. They also absorb human carbon-dioxide emissions and produce oxygen. In the long term, however, they need more than just light energy to do that: they also need fertiliser. It's generally assumed that in the long run, if humans start spending serious amounts of time off Earth, they will have to take to using their own excrement for this purpose - much though developed nations at present typically forbid the use of human poo on crops destined for human consumption.
For now, none of that's on the cards, so the 'nauts of Expedition 44 will be spared the need to eat out of a possibly rather odorous turd-garden.
There's loads more ISS and Expedition 44 news and info here, courtesy of NASA. ®
*We'd have suggested Veg Eaten Grimly by Gastronomes Independent of Earth.