Thursday, 27 February 2014

What’s On the Space Menu? – Vegetables Grown in Space Deemed Safe to Eat

The History of Space Food

The long quest for adequate nutrition in space has taken astronaut consumption from toothpaste tubes and gelatin coated cubes to freeze-dried foods and now to the possibility of freshly-grown vegetables.
This ever-evolving space menu was well documented in Space Safety Magazine’s Space Food special earlier this year, covering the past, present, and future of space food — the struggles to achieve food that is nutritious, long-lasting and safe in the space environment has been a long one.
Early space food involved pre-packaged items that although technically safe and nutritious, were not as appetizing as fresh foods. (Credits: NASA)
Early space food involved pre-packaged items that although technically safe and nutritious, were not as appetizing as fresh foods.
(Credits: NASA)
The first space food used on missions consisted of vicious fluid packaged in aluminium tubes, similar to toothpaste tubes. The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, tested the functionality of the digestive system in space with chocolate sauce and meat paste packaged in such tubes. Although effective for use in microgravity, these were deeply unpopular. Gelatin coated cubes and rehydratable freeze dried foods also made appearances early in the US space program. Available in flavors ranged from cereal to bacon and strawberry — these were not continued since they generated crumbs that posed an inhalation hazard in microgravity and also formed a sticky coating. On the other hand, the rehydratable freeze dried foods that followed were deemed unappetizing by astronauts. The experience and technology gained from these previous iterations of space food helped researchers hone these dense nutritional packages into items of recognizable, even appealing items on the space menu of today.

Achieving Edible Fresh Food in Space

The journey is far from over and the production of fresh food in space without resupply missions from Earth is the ultimate goal. However, we are now half-way there, as growing fresh food in space that is edible has now been successfully achieved. As RIA Novosti reports,Russian scientists have recently verified that several plants grown in space are safe for human consumption. The space grown vegetables range from peas and Japanese leafy greens to dwarf wheat — all of which passed tests on Earth for abnormalities or harmful microbes.
Margarita Levinskikh of the Institute of Biological Problems told the radio show The Voice of Russia that “The plants have been very developed, absolutely normal and did not differ a lot from the plants grown on Earth.” As a co-investigator on the NASA study to validate the Vegetable Production Unit (VPU), she works alongside scientists to ensure that the procedures and protocols used aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to grow fresh food maximise astronaut health and well-being.
The importance of not only growing but also testing the food grown by astronauts and cosmonauts is vital to our development as a space faring species. To assume such foods to be safe once grown in space is a dangerous risk to take. With plant growth affected by the microgravity environment in ways that we do not yet fully understand and microbial organisms known to develop into more virulent varieties under microgravity conditions, scientific investigation of food grown in space is mandatory during this developmental phase of consuming fresh food in space.
The Lada greenhouse, named after the Russian goddess of spring houses vegetables grown aboard the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA)
The Lada greenhouse, named after the Russian goddess of spring houses vegetables grown aboard the International Space Station.
(Credits: NASA)
Currently, vegetables are grown on board the International Space Station in a special greenhouse named Lada, after the Russian goddess of spring. The unit is equipped with removable root modules containing enough nutrients for several generations of crop-growth — astronauts send these modules back to Earth for analysis once the nutrients are used up. Biologists then probe the root modules and the plants’ leaves for contaminants which may originate from the space station’s environment.
“We have also gotten experience with the astronauts and cosmonauts eating the fresh food they grow and not having problems,” said crop scientist Bruce Bugbee who is also a co-investigator in the research, in an email to Popular Science. As a professor at Utah State University, Bugbee has worked on numerous studies of food grown in space. He adds in an email to Space Safety Magazine, “Since the earliest days of the long-term manned space program, space grown food has undergone an enormous amount of testing… to-date, we have been able to grow only small amounts of fresh food in space. We have long known that fresh food in the diet is important to health.  Dieticians have pushed for more fresh food in the diet in space.  Health professionals are concerned about the safety of a long-term diet of dried, stored food.  We have been working to be able to gradually change this diet.”
With human spaceflight missions sent to increase in duration as we venture further into the cosmos, growing edible food in space is an important area of research for future human settlements in space.  There are several research programs underway that investigate the growth of plants in space. Hundreds of seeds have flown in orbit to determine the effects of the environment – particularly radiation – on their ability to germinate. The use of plants as part of a self-sustaining habitat is another popular area of research that will bring humans one step closer to living in a closed life support system in space. A NASA research team has already developed 100 menu items for use in the Martian environment as humans eventually venture beyond low Earth orbit and journey to the Red Planet to stay.

Orbital Comfort Food

Home comforts whilst abroad on Earth can be an uplifting experience – even more so when orbiting above Earth or on another planet. Such space treats are a welcome break from the monotony of the safe-to-eat space menu and items including Coke, bread, and alcohol have all been briefly embraced by NASA in the past.
Astronauts have access to a variety of flavored drinks whilst in space however soda and carbonated beverages pose a hazard inside their pressurized vessels if carbon dioxide bubbles escape to form a foam or stay in to affect astronaut’s stomachs. However, in 1985 Coca-Cola, and to some extent Pepsi tried to solve these problems by designing special space cans with controlled dispensing. Unfortunately, they were unable to make drinkable coke and carbonated space beverages were not continued and are not available on the ISS today. However, the Coca-Cola cans designed for space did make a special appearance as part of the opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The minute-long advertisement shows a U.S astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut aboard the orbiting outpost watching their two nations going head-to-to head in an Olympic hockey match on Earth. The rivalry between the two jersey-clad crewmates soon gives way to camaraderie as the soft drink is spills and floats around the station, resulting in a team effort to catch the bubbles.
An astronaut drinks Coca Cola from a specially designed can which was flown on the shuttle, yet the carbonated space beverage produced unwanted stomach effects in microgravity. Credits: (NASA)
An astronaut drinks Coca Cola from a specially designed can which was flown on the shuttle, yet the carbonated space beverage produced unwanted stomach effects in microgravity. Credits: (NASA)
Bread is a food staple on Earth, however, when taken to space in the past it quickly molded due to the high oxygen environment. One of the most famous space food stories is that of John Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini 3. The stowaway sandwich quickly turned dry and crumbly and today, ISS crews prefer to use tortillas as a bread alternative due to their long shelf life and low crumb production.
The notion of extraterrestrial sherry arose during the early seventies, when NASA’s focus was shifting from short, Moon-focused missions to missions requiring long-term inhabitation of space; sherry was considered as an addition to the Skylab menu. A small quantity of Paul Mason California Rare Cream Sherry was ordered for the entire Skylab mission and tested on NASA’s zero G plane. Unfortunately, adverse odors and reactions were noted and the sherry never went to space. It was not deemed necessary for nourishment or as part of balanced diet, unlike vegetables which are very much considered a necessity to living in space for the long run. (Gizmodo)
On the other hand, the Russians have looser standards than NASA when it comes to drinking alcohol in orbit. Alexander Lazutkin, who lived aboard Russia’s Mir space station commented that Russian doctors have been said to have sent alcoholic beverages along with spacefliers for years to keep them “in tone” and to “neutralize tension. ” At the beginning of the Space Age, cognac was recommended to stimulate cosmonaut’s immune systems. With strenuous space walks and a stressful working environment, the Russians believe that alcohol helps to enhance job performance and reduce stress.

The Future of Orbital Farming

With the focus of space research moving away from luxury items such as coke, bread and sherry and onto fresh foods, it is important to highlight the advantages of space farming. As well as the nutritional benefit, growing food in space could eventually lower the cost of resupply missions to the International Space Station and have positive effects on the psychological health of astronauts through tending for the plants as they grow.
“Caring for a plant every day provides vital psychological relief, giving astronauts a small remembrance of Earth,” NASA scientist Howard Levine told Modern Farmer.
'Diary of a Space Zucchini', a poignant account of the life of a zucchini was kept by astronaut Don Pettit as it grew on board the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA)
‘Diary of a Space Zucchini’, a poignant account of the life of a zucchini was kept by astronaut Don Pettit as it grew on board the International Space Station.
(Credits: NASA)
An example of such positivity from growing vegetables in space is Astronaut Don Pettit. He kept ‘Diary of a Space Zucchini’ during his time aboard the station and wrote a creative and poignant personified account of the life of a zucchini growing in space.
“Excitement is in the air. Gardener said we will soon be returning to Earth. Our part of the mission is nearly complete and the new crew will take over for us. I am a bit worried about Broccoli, Sunflower, and me. If Gardener leaves, who will take care of us?” Pettit writes in the voice of the zucchini.
Following the recent verification from scientists that fresh food grown in Lada is deemed safe for consumption, the space menu is set to expand as other vegetable varieties join the line up to grow in the space greenhouse. After repairing Lada, researchers are planning to grow rice, tomatoes, and bell peppers aboard the International Space Station next year, none of which have ever been grown in space before.
With orbital farming in the process of becoming safer with each harvest, the space menu has come far from its toothpaste tube origins. Yet, there are still many questions to be answered and challenges to be tackled with growing food in space. The behaviour of vegetable growth in microgravity requires further long-term study as do types of vegetables that may be practical – and impractical – to grow in space. In time, research into orbital meat growth may one day arise as we establish long-term settlements in space and the natural human appetite for meat is catered to. The space menu is ever-changing and it is vital that time is spent now to produce the nourishing and tasty foods that will stock the space kitchen cupboards of the future.
Feature image caption: Astronauts currently enjoy fresh food sent up from Earth in resupply missions to the station. (Credits: NASA)
Written for Space Safety Magazine by Nikita Marwaha

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Columbus Calling

Yesterday morning, I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the Columbus Control Centre. Located at the German Aerospace Centre - DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) it sits just outside Munich in a place called Oberpfaffenhofen (also, my new favourite German word).

 As the Mission Control Centre for the European Columbus module of the International Space Station (ISS), engineers here are in contact with the astronauts up in space as well as other ISS Mission Control Centres scattered across the globe. It was a pretty amazing way to start my weekend!


The Columbus module is the European part of the ISS. It is a European Space Agency (ESA) laboratory attached to the space station, where astronauts conduct experiments in fields ranging from plant biology, fluid physics, life science and material science. 

Launched into space nestled inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2008the Columbus module is a powerhouse of  space research and it is here, at the Columbus Control Centre that the space laboratory is controlled.


This room in the photos above is the Flight Control Room. It's staffed by a minimum of 3 people around the clock who monitor the module to ensure that everything is functioning correctly. Each astronaut's schedule is mapped out down to 5 minute increments  with 8 hours of work, 8 hours of play and 8 hours of sleep all precisely pencilled into the computer program on the screen above. Since it was a weekend, the astronauts are given this time off, so are free to enjoy the wonders of zero gravity without disturbance.

It was a really great day and a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the enormous global effort that the space station is, both on Earth and in space. 
A friendly engineer even let us sit in his chair for a photo op :) The button I'm holding speed dials an astronaut via Houston!


Friday, 14 February 2014


It's been a month and a half since I moved from London to Munich on New Years Day. Time has flown past and I'm already finding myself giving people (wrong) directions around town! 
Occasionally, I look back to my first few days at work when everything that seems so clear to me now was all new information and realise how much I've already learnt in this short time. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a wonderful place to grow professionally and I can only imagine the perspective I'll have on my last day — leaving as a better writer than before. 

Sitting at the forefront of cutting-edge astronomical research of the Southern skies incredible new discoveries, exciting projects and magical images of the Universe are ESO's forté. One such project that I'm working on is the ESO Ultra HD Expedition, which is the journey of four world renowned astrophotographers to Chile in order to capture the magnificent ESO sites in all their grandeur . A week or so ago, Christoph Malin, one of the talented ESO Photo Ambassadors embarking upon the trip paid a visit to the office where he took some photos of us hard at work :) 
Living in a sleepy village outside Munich city centre means that I am always a tourist whenever I visit town. The weather has been unusually warm, but I'm not complaining!
I thought I'd share these snippets of my daily life as a short glimpse into working and living in Munich :)


Tuesday, 11 February 2014

From Earthlings to Martians: How Will Living On The Red Planet Affect Our Human Bodies?

As the next giant leap for humankind, the colonization of Mars receives a great deal of attention. When discussing the settlement of Mars, it is important to consider how the Martian environment will affect our human bodies in the long-term — a subject that does not receive as much coverage as colonization itself, yet is vital to ensuring our survival when we get there.
The Red Planet is the next natural step in humanity's exploration of the cosmos - however living on the surface as humans adapted to life on Earth is medically challenging   (Credit: NASA).
The Red Planet is the next natural step in humanity’s exploration of the cosmos – however living on the surface as humans adapted to life on Earth is medically challenging (Credit: NASA).

One-Way Ticket to Mars

The notion of leaving the cradle of humanity and settling in greener – or in this case redder – pastures on the fourth rock from the Sun has sparked novels, movies, research facilities, and now one-way missions. We have been conjecturing about life on Mars for centuries and recently, ‘Mars to Stay’ missions have been proposed by commercial entities in an attempt to bring these dreams to life and finally send humans on a trip to Mars with no return.  One such example is the non-profit foundation Mars One, whose goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2025. It has stirred great interest with its optimistic roadmap of giving four volunteers a one-way ticket for a 210 day journey to the Red Planet every 26 months to spend the rest of their lives on Mars.

The Human Body and Gravity

Medically-speaking, getting there is essentially the easy part. The current six-month rotation on-board the International Space Station was partly designed so that it reflects the time taken to get to Mars, resulting in greater knowledge on what state an individual would arrive at Mars in. Physiological effects aboard the ISS range from muscle atrophy to osteoporosis and negative effects on the balance and cardiovascular system. With these mitigated for to some extent, such signs of the body adjusting to daily life without gravity are in synchrony with those likely to be experienced on a journey to Mars. As a result, the trip itself will not be so different to living on board the ISS — however the consequences of travelling beyond low Earth orbit and then living on Mars is far less familiar territory in space research. After a long space flight, astronauts find it difficult to stand and orientate themselves in the weight of Earth’s gravity.  A crew of post-mission specialists are ready to assist astronauts upon landing on Earth, but this will not be the case for the first settlers on Mars. The surface gravity of Mars is 38% that of Earth. That might make it slightly easier on landing, but in the long run, the full force of gravity that our bodies have adapted to will not be present to re-strengthen the astronauts’ cells, bones, and muscles as they readapt to a gravity environment. Adjusting to this lower level of gravitational pull on Mars may cause a physiological change in the astronauts’ bone density, muscle strength, and circulation making it impossible to survive under Earth conditions if they were to ever return.
Mars One aims to establish human settlement by 2025 displayed in this artist's illustration of the Mars One habitat (Credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg).
Mars One aims to establish human settlement by 2025 displayed in this artist’s illustration of the Mars One habitat (Credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg).

Earthlings or Martians?

The side-effects of travelling to, landing, and living on Mars are far greater in terms of both psychology and physiology. Travelling outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field to a distance so great that our planet is no more than a speck on the horizon will have a profound effect on the crew.
Aboard the ISS, if astronauts are feeling down, family and friends are simply a phone call away. The astronauts are also able to change their perspective by basking in the beauty of the revolving planet beneath them. However, as Earth shrinks to merely a dot on the horizon and the crew begin to live and work on the surface on Mars, the time delay across the vast expanse of space increases and eventually phone calls with loved ones become impractical. With communication signals taking between 3 and 22 minutes to travel each way, the ability to sustain a real conversation with anybody on Earth is not an option ever again.
This may eventually change the way that the crew view themselves. Psychologically, it is speculated that they will become Martians within weeks and will view themselves as a separate entity from Earthlings. The psychological isolation experiment Mars-500 explored this and other side-effects of crew isolation during a year and a half simulation of a round-trip mission to Mars.
Romain Charles, who along with Diego Urbina and four other crew members spent 520-days in the Mars mission simulation, shared his thoughts on the defining moment when they felt separate from the outside world.

It’s a tough question as we didn’t have any windows (or a simulated window) in our modules. Diego created an animation which allowed us to have a better understanding of what we would be able to see (or not see) but it came a bit later…I would say that, it’s not really the view of the Earth that changed our perspective. For me, the moment when we couldn’t phone the control center brought more “distance” between our crew and the world around than any window.
Advancements in virtual reality technologies may aid the crew in maintaining their mental health and stimulate their sensory systems, providing the ability to virtually transcend to a familiar location on Earth that has fond memories associated with it.
This is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), located in the Utah Desert it is one of the four Mars-like bases scattered across the globe that gathers key research into life on Mars including fields such as biology and geology  (Credit: The Mars Society).
This is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), located in the Utah Desert it is one of the four Mars-like bases scattered across the globe that gathers key research into life on Mars including fields such as biology and geology (Credit: The Mars Society).

The Environment of Mars

In order to assess the physiological effects of living on the surface of Mars, the Martian environment must be considered. Although it is orbiting 50% further away from the Sun and is 11% smaller than Earth, Mars is remarkably similar to our blue marble. With polar ice caps, seasonal changes, and weather patterns, it appears to be relatively comparable.
However, the absence of an ozone layer and liquid water are both extreme factors in the safety of astronauts. The presence of ‘superoxides’ that break down in the presence of ultraviolet radiation in Martian soil and a much lower level of thermal inertia on Mars also makes it difficult to predict how the human body will cope in such an environment. Martian dust devils, monster columns of spiraling red-brown sand and dust ten times larger than tornadoes found on Earth are predicted to also pose a threat to Martian settlers.
Currently exploring the surface of the Red Planet is NASA’s Curiosity rover. Its radiation-detecting instrument Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) collected data that suggests that the risk of radiation exposure on a 180-day each-way return trip to Mars with 500 days on the surface would expose astronauts to a cumulative radiation dose of about 1.01 sieverts. However, the long-term radiation dosage for those dwelling permanently on the red planet requires much further investigation.
Simulations of life on Mars in analogue Earth environments such as the Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project established by the Mars Society help to reveal the mystery behind life on Mars. This is a global program of Mars exploration in four Mars base-like habitats located in the deserts of the Canadian Arctic, the Utah Desert, the Australian outback, and Iceland — allowing novel insights to be gained and field research to be conducted by rotating crews. Suchresearch in Mars-like environments is a valuable source of knowledge for researchers and inspiration for enthusiasts with the vision of human exploration of Mars.
The Martian habitat will undoubtedly need to protect the crew from long-term radiation exposure. Using Mars One proposes to solve this challenge via a habitat covered by a layer of soil that provides shielding against galactic cosmic rays. They state that sixteen feet (5 meters) of Martian soil provides the same protection as the Earth’s atmosphere — equivalent to 1,000 grams per square cm (227.6 ounces per square inch) of shielding. If the colonists spend two hours a day outside the habitat, their individual exposure adds up to 22 mSv per year. Key research into habitat and spacesuit technology is to be done in order to provide sufficient radiation shielding so that the settler is made safe when both indoors and outside on the surface of Mars.

Future Research

Eventually, humans will journey to Mars and settle on our neighboring planet; however this journey remains the greatest challenge of our time at present. In order to thrive on the Red Planet in the future, it is vital that thorough research into the Martian environment and its interaction with the complex human body is carried out now. In particular, long-term isolation studies that simulate not only the journey to Mars, as in the case of the Mars 500 experiment, but also daily life on the surface of Mars as a human settler are needed. Medical experiments investigating the environmental effects of the Martian environment such as prolonged radiation and reduced gravity should also be carried out.
Understanding these effects is critical to maintaining the health of those pioneering few that are bold enough to take the next step in humanity’s journey through the cosmos and it will ensure the survival of our species for many generations to come, as Earthlings and Martians.

Written by Nikita Marwaha for Space Safety Magazine

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