NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission commander was in charge of conducting four Vegetable Production System (Veggie) experiments, the last two of which ended after the 13th of April with harvest. VEG-03K and VEG-03L tested a new space crop, ‘Amara’ mustard, and a previously grown crop, ‘Extra Dwarf’ pak choi. The plants were grown for 64 days, and are thought to be the longest leafy greens ever grown on station.
The pak choi grew for so long that it started to flower as part of its reproduction cycle. Among Hopkins’ efforts in eclipsing the mark were using a small paintbrush to pollinate plant flowers. He landed on that approach after discussing the matter with Kennedy’s Matt Romeyn, a space crop production project scientist and science lead on the four plant experiments. They went over multiple options, including just letting the flowers self-pollinate.
“I wasn’t all at surprised that he chose this route to make sure the plants were fully pollinated because he has always wanted to be very involved. After he used the paintbrush, we saw a high seed production rate.”
Pollination is crucial for fruit crops; thus experimentation is very important, and the teams of scientists have to figure out how the process works in microgravity and, eventually, in reduced gravity. Fruit is already about to head to the station, it is planned to the time, when Kennedy sends pepper seeds to the space station later this year, which is a part of the Plant Habitat-04 experiment. The pepper seeds will fly on SpaceX’s 22nd Commercial Resupply Services mission and grow in the Advanced Plant Habitat. Next year a VEG-05 experiment with dwarf tomatoes is as well scheduled for Veggie.
Multiple harvests from the latest experiments maximized the amount of produce Hopkins grew, and the team used the greens to make their food more diverse. Hopkins ate the pak choi as a side dish, with leaves marinated in an empty tortilla package. The researcher added some soy sauce and garlic, and then put the dish in a food warmer for about 20-30 minutes. Astronauts love the Amara mustard “like a lettuce wrap,” according to Hopkins, they add there chicken, soy sauce, and balsamic vinegar.
Romeyn said: “That’s mission accomplished for us right there … doing sustained crop production on station is an important demonstration for later missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
"The crew is enjoying growing them, they’re enjoying eating them, and these are the exact kind of crops we can send on a long-duration lunar stay to provide supplemental nutrition. Everything we learn on station and the Moon will eventually enable doing this en route to Mars someday.”
Of course, astronauts’ pre-packaged meals are diverse and nutritious, however, fresh crops is an tempting compliment. Hopkins thinks that are like a “connection to Earth”, that’s why, for the sake of maintaining this connection, he uses his personal time to be a space gardener.
On the 4th of January, Hopkins started two experiments, VEG-03I, involving the first successful plant transplants in space, and VEG-03J, featuring the use of new seed film developed at Kennedy. He harvested both experiments on the 2nd of February. About a week later, he began growing VEG-03K and VEG-03L.
Gioia Massa, Kennedy Life Sciences Plant Scientist, said that NASA astronaut, Kate Rubins, has as well been involved in the Veggie experiments:
“He has been a huge advocate from the get-go. We have such passionate and enthusiastic astronauts who are incredibly supportive of this research.”
During VEG-03I, two plant pillows containing ‘Outredgeous’ Red Romaine and ‘Dragoon’ lettuce seeds were growing far slower than the other plants and would not have caught up by harvest time. Yet, using the assistance of Veggie program scientists at Kennedy, Hopkins managed to transplant extra sprouts from the thriving plant pillows into two of the struggling ones. The team was pleasantly surprised to find out that microgravity, actually, benefits the plants, paving the way for potential future development.
The Biological and Physical Sciences Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington led development of Veggie and the APH, and regularly solicits research investigations to be performed in them.