CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 15 (UPI) -- NASA's Vegetable Production System, called VEGGIE for short, is among the 500 pounds of supplies to be delivered to the International Space Station by SpaceX's Dragon capsule.
The small greenhouse-like contraption -- which features LED lighting and seedlings packed in small pillows of soil -- will be used by astronauts to sprout lettuce as they orbit Earth. If successful, cultivation of other vegetables may be attempted.
VEGGIE was set to be delivered early this week, as NASA and SpaceX -- the private space flight company started by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk -- had scheduled to launch their third Dragon resupply effort via its Falcon 9 rocket on Monday afternoon.
But ISS astronauts will have to wait a little longer to add roughage to their diets, as Falcon 9's launch was postponed yesterday after a helium leak was discovered prior to liftoff.
"Our hope is that even though VEGGIE is not a highly complex plant growth apparatus, it will allow the crew to rapidly grow vegetables using a fairly simple nutrient and water delivery approach," said Howard Levine, chief scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center International Space Station Research Office.
For the past two years, Gioia Massa, a postdoctoral fellow in the Surface Systems Group of Kennedy's Engineering Directorate, has been working with the ISS Research Office to test the VEGGIE system here on Earth before it's delivered to the astronauts in space.
ISS already hosts other plant growing devices, but once delivered VEGGIE -- in terms of surface growing area -- will be the largest on board.
"VEGGIE could be used to produce faster-growing species of plants, such as lettuce or radishes, bok choy or Chinese cabbage, or even bitter leafy greens," Massa said. "Crops like tomatoes, peas or beans in which you'd have to have a flower and set fruit would take a little longer than a 28-day cycle."
VEGGIE is part of a larger effort to maximize the mental and physical health of astronauts in space.
"Based upon anecdotal evidence, crews report that having plants around was very comforting and helped them feel less out of touch with Earth," Massa added. "You could also think of plants as pets. The crew just likes to nurture them."