Space housing for astronauts and growing vegetables in zero gravity are both being studied by NASA onboard the ISS. At the same time, Bigelow Aerospace is in the process of constructing an inflatable housing module 13 feet long and 11 feet wide, which will soon be tested and attached to the space station.
NASA has allocated $17.8 million for the project, looking to provide housing in space for future astronauts and possibly for space tourists. By attempting to attach the inflatable module to the ISS, NASA and Bigelow will determine whether the concept is feasible.
The module is designed to be folded to the point where it is small enough to be carried as payload by a launch rocket to low-Earth orbit, where it can then be inflated with nitrogen and oxygen. When fully expanded, it will attach itself to the ISS. Bigelow Aerospace is already working on a larger, more advanced module designed to be assembled in low-Earth orbit to house astronauts independently of the ISS. If successful, it would be the first space housing facility to be privately owned and operated.
The ISS can house up to six astronauts. Its future after 2024 is uncertain, amplifying the need for other options to house people in space. While one project focuses on housing, the other centers on food. ISS astronauts currently live on a diet of dehydrated packaged space food and rarely get the chance to eat fresh vegetables.
That could change, however, as NASA is currently working with private company Orbitech to construct a growing chamber onboard the ISS to grow a vegetable garden.
On April 18, a SpaceX supply capsule delivered a Vegetable Production System, which was installed by astronaut Steve Swanson. Three out of six romaine lettuce plants planted in the foot-wide growing chamber have sprouted.
Next week, the plants will be harvested, frozen, and sent back to Earth, where scientists will determine whether they are safe for consumption. If the answer is yes, NASA plans to grow more lettuce onboard the ISS later this year.
“Getting the environment exactly right for plants to grow in space is a challenge,” said Giola Massa, NASA lead project researcher.