NASA is conducting a study to see how astronauts feel about growing their own vegetables aboard the  International Space Station (ISS). Growing your own vegetables and eating them fresh has multiple benefits, health and nutrition-wise. The space agency says the study will also allow it to understand whether gardening in leisure time can help astronauts ease their sense of confinement on board the space station.

Initial results show that some astronauts loved working with the plants, spending hours of their free time, during their mission, caring for the plants. Others spent their time doing different activities, the agency said in a blog post. Despite the variable behaviour exhibited by them, no astronaut viewed their work with the plants as “meaningless”; everyone valued the utility of growing plants in space.

The study will help NASA better design food systems for future space missions (for example Mars exploration). Designing a space food system is a delicate task, requiring scientists to ensure the food provides ample sustenance for long-duration missions. NASA scientists are already working on developing such a food system for astronauts.

Dr. Gioia Massa, project scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, is leading the research related to cultivation of vegetables in space. Her team is asking the astronauts to complete a survey about their space-gardening experience. For example, those growing mizuna mustards take the survey two to three times for the month-long growth cycle of the plant.

Massa’s team is trying to understand how space-gardening affects the astronauts’ moods with questions such as whether gardening was engaging, demanding, or meaningful? Did it impact the performance of mission tasks or relationships with crew members? How gardening impacted sensory stimulation for sight, touch, smell, and taste? When the vegetables are ready to eat, they will be asked to rate the flavour, colour, appearance, aroma, texture, and taste of the produce for a sensory assessment.

So far, seven astronauts have completed the survey but the researchers hope to survey a total of 24 astronauts eventually.

“We are learning what crops to grow to help supplement the diet, which activities should be automated or remotely operated, and which should have options for crew involvement,” said Massa.

She added that different space missions will require different solutions. For now, their focus is on adaptability.

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