NASA says it has earmarked $17.8 million for a test demonstration of "space housing," which will see a module added onto the International Space Station.

And in another "housekeeping" activity, an astronaut aboard the station has taken on a new duty, tending to a small zero-gravity garden of romaine lettuce being grown in space.

Looking first at the veggie front, astronaut Steve Swanson has installed a new Vegetable Production System that was sent up to the ISS by NASA on a SpaceX supply capsule that was launched April 18.

Since its installation, three out of six red romaine plants have successfully sprouted and are growing, with Swanson preparing for a "harvest" next week.

They won't become part of a dinner salad for the astronauts, however; the harvested lettuce will be quickly frozen and returned to Earth to be tested to confirm it would be safe to consume.

It it proves so, more bunches of lettuce will be planted later in the year, representing the first time the space agency has ever planted and nurtured food in space.

"Getting the environment exactly right for plants to grow in space is a challenge," says NASA lead project researchers Giola Massa.

Astronauts currently depend on heavily processed and dehydrated packaged space food.

"The astronauts have a pretty amazing diet, with a lot of different foods, but they don't get fresh vegetables often," Massa says. "When they do get supply shipments up there, they eat all the vegetables right away."

Scientists with private firm Orbitech worked with the space agency to design and develop the foot-wide growing chamber installed aboard the space station.

While the veggies are growing, NASA is turning to another matter, providing housing in space for future astronauts and even perhaps for space tourists.

It has funded a test demonstration by another private company, Bigelow Aerospace, which says it is developing an expandable habitat that can be folded down small enough to fit into a launch rocket as its payload and then be inflated to a usable size with nitrogen and oxygen once it reaches orbit.

Company founder Robert Bigelow says the plan is to launch a test module, 13 feet in length by 11 feet wide when inflated, and attach it the space station as a demonstration of the concept's feasibility.

Bigelow Aerospace says it is also working on an even larger module, which could be assembled once it reaches low-earth orbit as the first independently-owned and operated space facility to house people.

With no current plans to operate the International Space Station with its six-person capacity past 2024, the housing shortage in space could become critical, which means the "space housing" tests will be closely monitored.

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