Astronauts also need a healthy diet like those on Earth, but in space, even handling vegetables is a big challenge.
One of the main obstacles is to ensure that food grown there is not colonized by bacteria and fungi, making the crew sick.
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Lettuce is proving to be a good candidate to get around this, and its creator could never have imagined the spatial fate of its creation.
Frank Morton was on his way back from an event for plant breeding specialists (through breeding) and chefs when a friend looked at her cell phone and told him, “Look, they planted lettuce on the International Space Station.”
Frank Morton has become an American lettuce reference, attracting chefs to his farm — Photo: Getty Images/Via BBC
He asked which type, but that information was not available at the time.
Some time later, Morton came across a photo of the lettuce in question, printed in a magazine. He knew exactly what lettuce was, after all, it was his own invention: a plant he manipulated and named Outredgeous.
The seeds of this lettuce started to be sold to gardeners and, in the clientele, there were also researchers from NASA, the American space agency.
Morton is a pioneer in lettuce farming, and the organic farm he runs with his wife Karen in Oregon has become a mecca for chefs and lettuce fans.
He has been working for almost 40 years in plant manipulation, and for 12 years, he created Outredgeous.
In 1981, when he was a beginning farmer, Morton started growing two types of lettuce: a red Roman lettuce and a crisp green one, commonly used in salads. He planted some and saved seeds for the following year.
From about 200 seedlings that were planted in a part of the land, from green lettuce seeds, came a surprise.
“Right in the middle of all of them was a red lettuce,” says Frank Morton.
He guessed that there had been a spontaneous cross between the two varieties, and the following year he made more crosses—a plethora of shapes and colors arrived.
Like the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, whose experiments with peas were an omen of modern genetic science, Frank began to deduce how the plant’s characteristics were inherited: red was dominant over green; the curly leaf also prevailed.
Morton was startled. Creating plants and new varieties seemed to him to be a promising financial path, and, at the same time, it aroused a great curiosity in him.
There are projects to grow plants in greenhouses in Martian soil under study — Photo: NASA
“Something lit up in my brain at that moment,” he says. “From lettuce, I started exploring other plants, like quinoa and peppers. I kind of fell in love with them.”
The fascination of lettuce remained, however. In parallel with other projects, Morton created seedlings increasingly red.
“I was going deep into investigating how red you can make lettuce,” he recalls.
If he had a red plant, he would cross it with another, hoping to get an even stronger color. Back then, lettuce was more monochromatic than it is today, predominantly green—so when Outredgeous lettuce came along, it was quite unusual.
“It was so red that, in fact, most gardeners didn’t recognize it as lettuce. They thought it was some kind of beetroot,” says Morton. “It was amazing how red it was. That’s why I gave it that name (the outrageous word, from which it was inspired, means, in English, something like shocking).”
Morton offered Outredgeous seeds for sale through Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a seed company based in the State of Maine.
When he learned of the plant’s arrival at the space station, he contacted a NASA team and found that, in fact, their seeds had been purchased by them.
“They said that Outredgeous had ‘significantly less’ growth of microbes on the leaf surface,'” recalls Frank from his conversation with NASA researchers.
This was a great advantage over other vegetables tested, such as arugula and kale, which had proved to be quite vulnerable to microorganisms.
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New adventures with lettuce
After the space career of his creation, Morton continues with several other projects. He is particularly intrigued by the potential of the humble iceberg lettuce.
“They don’t have much flavor and are difficult to handle, but they have an interesting ‘crunchy’.”
Frank Morton is studying how to make them more attractive, whether in taste or appearance.
“I’m trying to make a lettuce that is bright red on the outside and pink on the inside. I already have some really nice lettuces, I must say.”