The radish experiment may eventually help astronauts on their way to Mars.

Advertisement

Sure, 2020 was a disaster, but 2021’s already looking up: This week, NASA harvested its first-ever space radishes—and they’re slated to return to Earth next year. The small crop was grown for experimental purposes, so sadly, don’t expect space salads to be served to the general public anytime soon. But hey, we’re heading in the right direction.

On Monday, American astronaut Kate Rubins plucked 20 radish plants from the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) on the International Space Station (ISS), wrapping them in foil and placing them in cold storage until it’s time for their return trip home on SpaceX’s 22nd Commercial Resupply Services mission in 2021. According to a NASA fact sheet, 11 experiments have been completed growing veggies for human consumption as part of this program—from ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce in 2015 to Mizuna mustard last year. NASA says radishes made for a logical next step as they mature in less than a month and have a “sensitive bulb formation” which allows for analysis of CO2 effects and mineral acquisition and distribution.

Kate Rubins checks out radish plants on International Space Station
On Nov. 27, 2020, NASA astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Kate Rubins checks out radish plants growing for the Plant Habitat-02 experiment that seeks to optimize plant growth in the unique environment of space and evaluate nutrition and taste of the plants.
| Credit: NASA

“Radishes are a different kind of crop compared to leafy greens that astronauts previously grew on the space station, or dwarf wheat which was the first crop grown in the APH,” NASA APH program manager Nicole Dufour said in the announcement. “Growing a range of crops helps us determine which plants thrive in microgravity and offer the best variety and nutritional balance for astronauts on long-duration missions.”

The radish haul isn’t over, either. NASA says a second round of radishes will planted and harvested before both batches are returned to Earth. Once there, they will be compared to a third set of “control radishes” grown in the International Space Station Environmental Simulator (ISSES) chamber in Kennedy’s Space Station Processing Facility, located on terra firma.

The hope is that these experiments will help NASA on its aspirations to have “sustainable exploration” of the Moon by the end of the decade—and then further reaches of space from there. “It’s a privilege to help lead a team that is paving the way to the future of space crop production for NASA’s exploration efforts,” Dufour added. “I’ve worked on APH since the beginning, and each new crop that we’re able to grow brings me great joy because what we learn from them will help NASA send astronauts to Mars and bring them back safely.”