The Alien Grow Room

If you think that there’s a lot involved in getting your grow room properly outfitted to produce a successful harvest, consider how much more involved it would be if you were somewhere other than Earth. Sure, it would be easier to just pour tap water into your hydro system reservoir without testing the pH or measuring it’s natural EC before dumping in the nutrients, but you can’t pour anything in space… it would not end up where you wanted it in zero gravity. Even your hair would stand up or out, not down. The grow room environmental control issues in deep space might make your hair stand on end too.

Now imagine sowing seeds in such an environment. Even in the confines of your grow room this wouldn’t be possible without some specially designed, and extremely expensive gadgets and equipment. After dabbling in growing alien plants in space for 30 years though, NASA is getting closer to perfecting veggie gardening in space this year. Some refinements have been made to the growing system used in 2014 experiments, and a new round of testing is underway in the ISS Veggie. As grow rooms go, it is super small, yet definitely not the budget-minded choice. Orbitec engineered it to create as close to and earth-like environment in the depths of outer space.

Veggie: Grow Room Environmental Control in OuterspaceHow much did it cost to engineer and manufacture the Veggie shown to the left? Too steep for the average indoor gardener’s pocketbook. Millions of dollars might seem a lot of cash outlay to produce a mere 5 romaine lettuces, especially when the staff on the space station couldn’t even eat those lettuces from the Veg-01 harvest this spring. Before they can enjoy what grows in the space station garden, making sure it’s safe to eat is a must. But imagine going 365 consecutive days or more without any fresh food at all. A few lettuce leaves become worth their weight in gold, and well worth waiting for. Something you will only understand until there is absolutely none available anywhere you can go for months, perhaps several years.

So, how do they get new plants started in an environment like the space station? Could you imagine trying to locate an escaped lettuce or cabbage seed in zero gravity? It’s long gone. No, there’s no special gravity inducing machine inside the grow room on the ISS. The seeds are glued in place before the supplies leave Earth. Kind of like seed tape, but inside growing containers that NASA calls ‘plant pillows’. The astro gardener starts his grow by hydrating the space grow bags filled with precision nutrients for the crop. These pillows as they call them are a one-time use garden input, it’s the best way to keep bacterial issues in check. They’ve got different sized pillows for various sized root masses too.

The hydroponic setup is passive to conserve energy, and they use arcilliite growing media, which is a clay material. The Veg-01 grow in April had them using two sizes of pellets so that the moisture to root distribution could be studied when the harvest arrived back here on Earth. This may be part of why some of the lettuces are larger in that photo of the crop growing under LEDs on the ISS up above. The next grow, Veg-03 is underway now, and the media being used will be the one that produced the healthiest, densest root mass from Veg-01. Unfortunately, the available information doesn’t pinpoint if that was the finer pellets or not.

Common sense says it’s probably that, but this is an alien environment, which could have a totally opposite affect on how Earthling plants grow 220 away from our planet and it’s atmosphere.
Since water doesn’t drain down through the substrate and pools around the roots in the absence of gravity up there, it’s very likely that the larger clay pellets work better to increase the air available to roots so they don’t suffocate. Of course, getting the water into the plant pillows is a challenge no Earthly indoor gardener has to deal with. Those little fittings connected to a corner of each pouch provides access for a syringe to get the water where it needs to be without spilling it on the ceiling.

Then there’s the plants themselves, which are naturally confused in such an alien environment. They head in all directions but up when they sprout. Comical, but not what the gardener wants at all. Interesting – it’s not just because the sun is overhead that plants grow up! Gravity has something to do with their predictable behavior here on the ground. So, how do the astronauts get their disorientated plants to straighten up? Those plant pillows are more than just a moisture and nutrient reservoir. To get the water to the roots, they’ve designed a wicking system to put the moisture where it’s needed, and the wicks assist the plants in correcting their posture too.

And you thought that getting a good harvest from your grow room called for some fancy maneuvers, tricky protocols, and far out calculations! Now they’re growing cabbage in Veg-03. Someday they’ll be able to enjoy homegrown tomatoes, and perhaps even produce some medicine in-house up there too… it’s a long way to a drugstore for some aspirin.

Learn more from NASA themselves:

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.