Get our free book (in Spanish or English) on rainwater now - To Catch the Rain.
Space framing or "Astroculture" is the act of cultivating crops without physically being on any planet. This is not to be confused with simple agriculture, which would be on a natural patch of soil, and thus on a planet. Astroculture also requires the use of micro-gravity, the artificial gravity that is found in space stations. Beginning in late 2013, NASA will be at work attempting to produce lettuce on the international space station as part of a project they have titled VEGGIE.
The process will begin with NASA's plans to launch Kevlar packs to the International Space Station.These packs are filled with a coarse soil, akin to kitty litter, that will act as the ground for the hoped-for crops. Although the process will be in space, that doesn't necessarily mean that there is constant sunlight, so the crops will be grown under bright pink LED lights. This process will produce an outredgeous lettuce in just under a month (approximately 28 days). This lettuce is not only fully edible, but also scientifically loaded with antioxidants that could act as a possible antidote to cosmic radiation. If this project comes to fruition, then the program will move onto further food options, such as radishes, peas, and small tomatoes. The idea is to have small, leafy plants that won't take up much room, but will be nutritious enough to allow the astronauts to, eventually, survive on their own crops alone.
The main problem that NASA foresaw when beginning the project was how the crop roots would grow and orientate themselves in the orbital atmosphere. As they tested this problem, they came to a peculiar conclusion, as the orientation of the roots didn't change at all, even when exposed to zero gravity. The roots simply sought out water as any Earth plant would. However, the water itself became a problem, as the gravity decreased. The water flowed freely out of the soil, and even the soil itself moved uncontrolled. Thus, NASA commissioned the use of the Kevlar packaged "tough" soil. The soil they use is thicker, tougher, and heavier, thus keeping both the plants and water in place while in zero gravity. Other problems that faced NASA included testing quick grow sprouts on shuttle missions, and the effects of different lights on the plants.  NASA's scientists are still unsure of how small changes in the air, temperature, humidity and the micro-gravity of the environment will hinder the plants, or if such changes will make the plants unfit for human consumption. There is also the possibility of any space-born microbes that may pose an unexpected threat. NASA is also looking into the problem of preserving the shelf life of both the crop seeds and of the edible crops themselves. Forseen problems to come include the idea of introducing bugs into the space farming habitat, and how they would react with the lack of gravity, and any micro changes to the plants themselves. There is also the possibility of any space crops coming back to Earth and contaminating our own plants, whether beneficially or harmfully. Regardless, plenty of precautions are being taken.
The overarching idea behind this project is to lengthen the time that astronauts can be in kept alive in space, as well as lessen the cost of actually shipping food to the station itself. Each pound that is transported costs $10,000, and the amount of space that the food crates take up could be used for more equipment. With the success of project VEGGIE, astronauts could be in orbit for an indefinite amount of time, as long as the crops continued to grow.  Not only would the crops act as a food source to the astronauts, but the very existence of plant life on the space vessel would enact a small ecosystem, as the plants provide oxygen which would be recycled by the astronauts into carbon dioxide, and thus traveled back to the plants. There is also the "calming effect" that plants have on people. Plants have a way of relieving stress by stimulating the senses and this could benefit astronauts who do not have much human interaction, along with simply giving them a new habit to attend to, instead of finding themselves with empty, boring hours in space.  Of course, the idea is that, eventually, we as the human race, can move past the space station and eventually colonize our moon, or other planets with the aid of what is quietly but quickly becoming the first signs of orbital bio-habitats.