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Hungry astronauts grow cosmic beans

By Richard Stenger

Space station gardener Peggy Whitson shows her bumper crop of soybeans
Space station gardener Peggy Whitson shows her bumper crop of soybeans

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International space station's Science Operations News external link

(CNN) -- When visiting the international space station, better one should come bearing gifts, in particular fresh edible treats for station residents weary of bland, processed foods.

When the space shuttle Atlantis arrived last week, commander Jeff Ashby did just last, radioing space station resident Peggy Whitson to make sure she knew he was bringing salsa.

"OK, we'll let you in then," joked Whitson, who had been gulping down freeze-dried and canned grub since her arrival in June.

In fact, Ashby and his crew brought along a whole smorgasbord of promised goodies, including oranges, grapefruits, garlic and pecan pie.

But someday explorers living in space for extended periods might not need perishable care packages. They will instead grow their own veggies.

Atlantis, besides delivering groceries, will return home this week with an experimental food crop grown in the station's science laboratory.

NASA hopes its cultivation of the cosmic beans will lead to the development of a miniature food farm unit in space, informally dubbed the "salad machine."

The beans were grown on the space station for their entire life cycle. Seeds were brought onboard in June. Whitson kept an eye on them inside a specialized growing chamber. They sprouted, shot up, produced flowers and then seed pods.

"This research demonstrates that the controlled environment technologies we developed are suitable for crop production in space, which can be used for the production of vegetable crops to support long-term human presence in space," said Weija Zhou, principal investigator for NASA's astroculture project.

Previous, shorter-term botanical experiments demonstrated that plants do not need gravity to grow and develop. But questions remain about how space affects plants.

Soybeans growing in the Advanced Astroculture chamber in the space station
Soybeans growing in the Advanced Astroculture chamber in the space station

Zhou, a space and robotics engineer at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, plans to do more studies to see if the essentially weightless conditions somehow changed the structure of the beans.

"We are going to sample the plant tissue and preserve it for RNA and DNA analysis after returning to the ground. Hopefully it will provide important information regarding the impact of low gravity on the plant gene expression," he said.

Zhou thinks that technological advances might allow astronauts to grow and eat their own crops on a limited basis within several years.

Besides providing much needed fresh food, plants could someday serve as natural air and water filters on long-duration space flights.

Perhaps as important, plants would "provide a little piece of Earth that helps make the spacecraft environment feel more like home," NASA said in a statement.

The space agency plans to tinker with lettuce, green onions, tomatoes and radishes in upcoming orbiting experiments.

In the meantime, station dwellers will have to rely on the old-fashioned method to satisfy their fresh food appetite. Whitson well describes such cravings in a letter home.

"At the beginning of October, fresh fruit and tomatoes seemed like a fantasy," she wrote, recalling the arrival of an unmanned Russian cargo ship. After unloading the vessel, she noted that "tomatoes have never tasted so succulent and apples so sweet."

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