February 18, 2009
You have to admire the logic of scientists. A group of them recently decided to study whether sweet potatoes can be grown in space. Why, pray tell? Aha! The American Society of Horticultural Science knew you were going to ask that! Their press release leads with the answer:
“Because of the distinct lack of grocery stores in outer space, scientists are looking to provide food for long-term space missions.”
I see their point, of course, but the wording made me chuckle. I imagine it being read in a slightly peeved tone, by someone who clearly expected the conveniences of Earth to exist throughout the universe. Next thing you know, it’ll be: “Because of the distinct lack of a decent latte in outer space…”
Anyway, back to the study. Led by researchers from the Tuskegee, Alabama-based Center for Food and Environmental Systems for Human Exploration of Space and G.W. Carver Agricultural Experiment Station (speaking of mouthfuls!), the methodology is straightforward. Cuttings from sweet potato plants were sent on the Columbia space shuttle when it took off for a 5-day space mission.
Analysis of the plants’ root growth — compared to the progress of a control group of ground-based cuttings–revealed that “space flight environment has no negative effect on the ability of vegetative cuttings to form roots, and that use of cuttings should be an acceptable means for propagating sweet potato for future space applications.” In fact, the roots in space grew even longer than the ones on earth, though with differences in starch and soluble sugar content.
Great news, I say. Unfortunately, because of the distinct lack of maple syrup in outer space, those poor astronauts can’t eat their sweet potatoes properly. Get back to work, scientists!
P.S. For another unusual space study, check out my colleague Sarah’s blog post about lessons in space exploration from Lewis & Clark.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.