Would You Eat Vegetables Grown in Space?

Some people like to know exactly where their food comes from before they decide whether or not to eat it.

For example, someone ordering chicken in a restaurant or purchasing it in a grocery store might have a question. They might ask if the chicken was free-range or whether it was cooped up in… well, a coop. 

Someone ordering vegetables at a farmer’s market or buying them in a store might wonder if they were grown locally. Or perhaps transported from another state. 

How do you think such a person would react if they received this reply to their query about the origin of veggies? “Well, they’re not exactly local. They were grown by the Chinese. In space…”  

Lofty Space Goals Require Food

China has a number of bold space exploration plans for the near future. They’re planning to send astronauts to the moon before 2030.

They aim to set up a base there known as the International Lunar Research Station. They’ve also identified Mars as a future destination. 

Long manned space flights require food. As of now, that would consist of non-perishable items. Some of which would need to be consumed in zero-gravity situations. 

But when it comes to establishing bases on the lunar surface and possibly the Red Planet, plant growth away from Earth will be necessary.

Lettuce, Tomatoes, & Green Onions

And that’s the idea behind a food-growing project China’s Shenzhou 16 mission recently undertook.

According to The Economic Times of India, Chinese astronauts on that mission cultivated fresh vegetables on the Tiangong space station. And also ate them. They were mission leader Jing Haipeng and rookie astronauts Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao.  

The astronauts (or taikonauts, as they call themselves) grew four distinct batches of lettuce in June. Then they added cherry tomatoes and green onions in August in two different orbiting vegetable gardens. 

Shortly before returning to Earth, they handed over control of the project to the Shenzhou 17 mission. This is the sixth manned mission to their space station since 2021. 

Large-Scale Cultivation Is Objective

The China Astronaut Research and Training Center (CARTC) designed the cultivation device. The organization has also built exact replicas on Earth of their plant-growing facility on the space station.

That’s so they can make comparisons. As well as analyze the differences between space and terrestrial environments in plant growth. So far, published observations reveal that the growth is similar.

If the project is eventually deemed successful, Chinese astronauts should be able to stay healthier on long-term space missions than they would by consuming only non-perishable foods.

Plants grown on the space station – as well as those that might be grown someday on the moon and Mars – absorb carbon dioxide and generate oxygen through photosynthesis. 

They also regenerate and purify water through transpiration. The goal is to turn these small experiments into rapid and large-scale cultivation once all the kinks have been worked out. 

Vegetable Growth Linked to Space Exploration 

The modular device that cultivates the vegetables is an open structure. This allows astronauts to tend to the plants whenever necessary. 

The device has the ability to adjust temperature, humidity, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels. Those levels are key to plant growth. And they are similar to what the astronauts themselves require. 

Vegetable growth is one of approximately 110 research and application projects conducted on China’s space station. They include areas such as microgravity, physics, and space technology. 

The Chinese are not the only ones experimenting with vegetable growth in space. NASA and European astronauts have also cultivated vegetables on the International Space Station. 

But the Chinese have closely linked their project with plans for near-future space exploration. And the establishment of extraterrestrial bases. 

Earth Menus May Expand 

Time will tell if these types of projects are successful. If so, it could open a window for future space tourism. 

Non-perishable food takes up room and adds weight to a space flight. Seeds, on the other hand, are much more compact and lighter.

Any long-term space voyage will require locally-grown sustenance. Being able to grow vegetables on a ship and inside a moon or planet base would greatly enhance the solution to that need.       

Yang Renze is a researcher from the CARTC. He said, “This vegetable cultivation apparatus is a key part of the whole Environmental Control and Life Support System. And it is used in space to verify the relevant technologies. 

“The system can be applied to the field of deep space exploration. Including our crewed lunar and Mars landing missions.” 

If vegetables grown in space prove to be superior in taste and nutrition to ones grown on Earth, don’t be surprised if someday you hear a restaurant patron saying, “I’ll have the Space Salad, please.”


  • Kenneth Searles - January 04, 2024

    It seems to me, that the obstacles to growth can be overcome, but what about exorbitant transportation costs? Will they plan on some way to amortize the expense, spread it over the entire harvest? Or will it be competitive in price to local farm grown?

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