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Growing Pains

It's the one area of space science in which you get to eat the experiment.

The Russian crew members spend their personal time tending Lada’s garden in exchange for the right to eat half their crops; the other half is reserved for analysis. Last November, cosmonauts reaped Lada’s first crop of leafy greens, greedily devouring half a harvest of Brassica rapa. (NASA would not grant permission for U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson to eat any—the greens had not been certified as safe for consumption—though her hand did mysteriously appear in a photograph of cosmonauts munching on their work.)

Like their Soviet predecessors, Bingham’s astro-farmers have been so taken by their work that they’re no longer automatically agreeing to do the tests Bingham and the other scientists propose. “They’ve become just as good at farming as we are,” says Bingham of the cosmonauts. “We think we ought to do something to the plants, and they’ll tell us, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ They know what’s best for the plants.”

Not that Bingham is really complaining. His goal is the same as that of the pioneering botanists who developed greenhouses for the Salyut stations: to make it possible for space explorers to feed themselves, no matter how far they may be from Earth. Lada’s success leaves Bingham optimistic that future space gardens will significantly reduce food shipments from Earth. “We hope to grow peas, mizuna, and radishes,” he says. “Enough to where we are providing crews with an occasional salad.” And, perhaps, a certain amount of good cheer.

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