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Astronauts Chow Down on the First Veggies Grown in Space

That’s one small salad for man. One giant lettuce for mankind.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station can add one more title to their already impressive resumes: space farmer. Today, the astronauts will chow down on freshly harvested red romaine lettuce, the first edible crop grown in space’s microgravity environment.

The leafy greens serve a few purposes up there in the great beyond. First, they’re part of an ongoing experiment to determine what sorts of plant life can be grown in open space. Growing food in space will only become more important as astronauts from NASA and other space agencies plan for longer and longer trips—to the moon, to Mars, and into the far reaches of the universe.

Space agencies could use this technology in the future to grow vegetables on spacecraft—or even on other planets.

Scientists say that galactic gardening has psychological benefits, too. As NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire points out in a blog post, "Future spaceflight missions could involve four to six crew members living in a confined space for an extended period of time, with limited communication.” That’s a lot of isolating me-time, exacerbated by the stress of living in an extreme and sometimes dangerous environment. Gardening is the perfect space hobby: “Having something green and growing—a little piece of Earth—to take care of…could have tremendous value and impact,” NASA explains. (Reminder: There is no Netflix in space). Just look at the positively gleeful Steve Swanson, NASA astronaut and flight engineer, as he tends to his little space garden:

The space romaine is also useful for the same reason your mother said: veggies are good for you. NASA scientists speculate that fresh foods rich in antioxidants—tomatoes, blueberries, red lettuce—could help protect astronauts against radiation in space. While the International Space Station’s intrepid explorers receive some Earth-fresh goodies in every supply ship, there’s only room for so many, and they have to be eaten quickly. Now there’s some leafy green to fill in the veggie gaps.

Sprouting next in the International Space Station garden: flowers. They’re fun to grow, pretty to look at—and scientists are wondering how they’ll pollinate in zero gravity.

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