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Lettuce sampling in space
Japan’s Kimiya Yui (at left) joins NASA’s Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly in sampling space-grown Outredgeous red romaine lettuce. (Credit: NASA TV)

Astronauts on the International Space Station ate space-grown lettuce for the first time today — an Oregon-bred variety of “Outredgeous” red romaine that’s perfectly suited for outer space as well as the Pacific Northwest.

“Nobody is more surprised that Outredgeous went into space than I am,” Frank Morton, the founder of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon, told GeekWire.

Morton developed the romaine variety back in the 1990s, when he was supplying greens for local restaurants. The leaves are so red that the first buyers found it hard to believe it was actually lettuce. But the taste quickly won over those who tried it, including the spacefliers who snipped off the leaves today and sampled them with a dab of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

“That’s awesome,” NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren said.

“Tastes good … kinda like arugula,” said NASA crewmate Scott Kelly, who is in the midst of a yearlong stint on the space station.

Harvesting lettuce
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren uses a scissors to harvest red romaine lettuce with a helping hand from crewmate Scott Kelly. (Credit: NASA TV)

NASA scientists selected Outredgeous for its Veggie plant-growing experiment in part because it’s tasty, nutritious and easy to grow. But one additional advantage turned out to be the clincher, Morton said.

“What they were really looking for were salad plants that were ‘clean’ — that is to say, had the least microbial growth on the leaves. … Outredgeous had the lowest microbial count of anything they looked at,” he said.

The Veggie chamber was developed in cooperation with Wisconsin-based Orbitec to grow plants in zero-G without having to worry about soil or water floating free in zero-G.

The seeds and the soil are packed inside a rooting pillow made of Teflon-coated Kevlar and Nomex, and water is delivered via a self-contained wicking system. The first lettuce crop was grown last year and tested for suitability. This crop, which took 33 days to mature, is the first to be taste-tested in orbit.

NASA sees grow-your-own food as an essential technology for human missions to Mars.

“If we’re ever going to go to Mars someday — and we will — whenever that is, we’re going to have to have a spacecraft that is much more self-sustainable with regards to its food supply,” Kelly explained. “This payload, and having the ability for us to grow our own food, is a big step in that direction.”

The challenges of growing off-Earth food provide some key plot twists in “The Martian,” a book by Andy Weir that’s been adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon, due for release in October. (The protagonist, an astronaut who’s marooned on the Martian surface, opts to grow potatoes rather than lettuce.)

You don’t have to be on Mars, or on the space station, to develop a taste for organically bred Outredgeous. The seeds are available online as well as at garden stores. And there’s still plenty of time to put in a crop.

“It’s the perfect time to plant lettuce for the fall,” Morton said.

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