NASA's Plan to Send Lettuce Into Space Dubbed 'Veggie'

Veggie, a NASA system to be carried aboard the SpaceX 3 flight.

Sept. 12, 2013— -- There's something rewarding about sticking your hands deep into the soil and planting your own garden.

And while astronauts aboard the International Space Station won't be able to get that sense of satisfaction, researchers at the Kennedy Space Center are still trying their hardest to get some greenery into space in the form of red romaine lettuce.

Veggie, short for a plant-growing system that's about the size of a microwave oven, is scheduled to go to the ISS on the SpaceX 3 flight on Dec. 9, though the exact launch date could change.

Gioia Massa, a project scientist for the Kennedy Space Center, said that Veggie wouldn't be feeding the astronauts right away, though. "They'll grow the lettuce, freeze it and send it back to Earth," she told ABC News. "We need to look at what types of microorganisms are on the leaves so we can determine if they're safe to eat in orbit."

Veggie is a joint project between NASA scientists and Orbital Technologies, based in Madison, Wis. While it's an American project at heart, Massa sees Veggie eventually opening up to international collaboration and experimentation. "Before we open this to outside investigators, we need to do a proof of concept," she said.

Plants that the astronauts have grown used to seeing on Earth may look different underneath Veggie's lights. According to a NASA news release, Veggie usually had its red and blue LED lights turned on, resulting in purple light bathing the plants for photosynthesis to take place and to make nutrients. An additional green LED can be turned on as well, turning the purple light white.

"LED lights have a long lifetime," said Massa, explaining why they went with three low-power LEDs as opposed to a standard lightbulb. Veggie also saves power by using a passive watering system to hydrate the plants.

Because of both space and power constraints, though, not every crop can grow aboard the ISS. "We couldn't grow any root crops, like carrots," said Massa. But the astronauts still have plenty of other options. Radishes, bok choy and zinnias all have space potential.

"The second set of plants grown with Veggie will be flowers," said Massa. "Gardening offers the astronauts some psychological benefits. We want the plants to be something that the crew can interact with."