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What vegetables are best for growing in Spaaace?

Grim diet of turd-garden cabbage, spinach for Mars 'nauts

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It's a question that must have vexed many space-loving gardeners over the years: Just what kinds of vegetables are most suitable for growing in space or at far-flung bases on alien worlds?

Now, that question has a definitive answer. At a conference in America*, scientists have announced their top 10 plants, chosen for such qualities as being able to absorb lots of CO2 breathed out by astronauts and turn it into lovely oxygen as well as more basic features such as not needing a lot of room and looking after. The winners are:

Lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs and cabbages.

The plants have also been selected, of course, as a means of supplementing astronauts' diet on long voyages such as the oft-discussed mission to Mars which might be mounted in a decade or two. According to Maya Cooper, the NASA boffin who compiled the list, each Mars astronaut can be expected to get through 7,000lb – over three tonnes – of grub during a mission, which would be a serious load for the spacecraft if it all had to be carried as conventional provisions.

“That’s a clear impediment to a lot of mission scenarios,” Cooper said. “We need new approaches. Right now, we are looking at the possibility of implementing a bioregenerative system that would involve growing crops in space and possibly shipping some bulk commodities to a Mars habitat as well. This scenario involves much more food processing and meal preparation than the current food system developed for the space shuttles and the International Space Station.”

At the moment, astronauts don't have to do much veg prep or cooking, still less any massive amount of gardening, so this would involve something of a culture shift from the environment aboard the International Space Station today (though perhaps not for much longer, as the station may soon be uninhabited).

The history of space food has been something of a long decline so far, starting on an initial high point for Yuri Gagarin who reportedly scoffed caviar during the first ever manned space flight and then descending through various kinds of horrific squeezy-tube and nibble-block rations to pre-packaged Chicken a la King as seen today.

Whether the proposed future of spinach and cabbage – perhaps eked out with the odd strawberry or radish – grown in tanks most probably fertilised with human excrement is a step up or down remains to be seen. It would all appear to be a long way off for now, anyway. ®

*The national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver at the weekend.

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