This article is adapted from an article by Leejay Lockhart at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and published at https://www.nasa.gov/feature/seed-film-brings-new-way-to-grow-plants-in-space
NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins harvested ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce grown in the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) aboard the International Space Station on Feb. 2, 2021. This experiment, VEG-03J, demonstrated a new way of storing, handling, and planting seeds in space.
NASA is studying how to effectively grow crops in space so plants can provide more nutrients to astronaut crews on long-duration missions, such as a mission to Mars. Researchers in previous Veggie experiments planted seeds in small pouches called plant pillows while on the ground at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
VEG-03J studied astronauts actually planting crops in space using a specially designed seed film. The film uses a water-soluble polymer, similar to a breath freshener strip, and aims to gives astronauts more flexibility for growing plants in space.
In this experiment, Kennedy researchers cast the seeds into the film, then cut the film into postage stamp-sized squares and packed them separately from the plant pillows. On Jan. 4, on the space station, Hopkins placed the seed film squares into the wicks. After adding water to the plant pillows, the film dissolved, and the seeds germinated. The lettuce became established 1-2 days ahead of previous Veggie experiments.
The seed film idea started in October 2016 at a Kennedy innovation event, where employees with ideas made short presentations to kick-start their projects. Matt Romeyn presented an idea for testing microgreens for use in space. Microgreens are vegetables harvested and consumed when they are very young and packed with nutrients, which make them ideal for testing and consuming in space.
Romeyn’s idea required a way to grow mats of microgreens in microgravity, which also requires managing large amounts of planted seeds. He gathered the materials for seed film and partnered with Trent Smith, a chemist. Together they figured out a way to make a film that would protect the seed and dissolve with the right amount of water and not disturb its growth.
“Nothing like that existed before,” Smith said. “But with some innovative thinking and using our diverse skills, we developed a solution, and this new technology will help drive space exploration.”