Veg-PONDS-02: NASA Is Experimenting With Growing More Fresh Foods in Space to Feed Astronauts on Long Missions

As NASA sets its sights on a return to the moon and human exploration of Mars, the space agency is investigating new ways to provide astronauts with an alternative to processed space food during long-term missions.

Part of this effort is the recently concluded Veg-PONDS-02 experiment, which took place aboard the International Space Station. The system included 12 nutrient delivery units containing romaine lettuce seeds, which were placed in NASA's outer space plant growth system, known as "Veggie."

The leafy greens were then harvested and returned to Earth on a SpaceX commercial resupply mission for further analysis.

NASA hopes that the new system will provide several advantages over the current method of growing plants in space, which makes use of seed bags—known as "pillows"—which astronauts inject water into with a syringe.

While growing leafy greens like lettuce is not a problem with this method, producing crops that require significant amounts of water, such as tomatoes, is not feasible because the pillows don't have enough holding capacity to support them.

The PONDS units, on the other hand, have more holding capacity, which provide more space for root growth. Furthermore, they can provide air and water to the plants passively—without the need for extra power—and are cheaper to produce than current systems.

"PONDS was an opportunity to do something that no one else has done before," Dave Reed, operations director at Techshot Inc.—one of the companies collaborating with NASA on the experiment—said in a statement. "People have been growing plants in space since the Apollo era, but not like this."

PONDS was successfully tested on Earth before being launched into space for the first time last year, but it initially pumped too much water to the lettuce seeds. Subsequently, the Techshot team had to re-engineer the system in order for it to withstand the latest test.

"We took a step back, evaluated different aspects of the design, and together with water fluid experts from NASA, we came up with three alternative designs, each of which had a number of components we wanted to test in space," Howard Levine, chief scientist of NASA's Utilization and Life Sciences Office, said in the statement.

The next steps for the PONDS system is to attempt to grow crops beyond leafy green varieties, according to the scientists. "There comes a point where you have longer and longer duration missions, and you reach a cost benefit point where it makes sense to grow your own food," Levine said.

Veg-PONDS-02 experiment, NASA, ISS, astronaut
NASA astronaut Christina Koch initiates the Veg-PONDS-02 experiment on the International Space Station within Veggie by filling the upper reservoir on April 25, 2019. NASA/David Saint-Jacques
Veg-PONDS-02: NASA Is Experimenting With Growing More Fresh Foods in Space to Feed Astronauts on Long Missions | Tech & Science