Tiny red light-emitting diodes infuse potato plants with life even in the unnatural environment of a space station — fueling our brave hope that one day, astronauts will be able to make their own vodka. Food in space has come a long way, as a new space-food retrospective proves.

Gourmet Magazine has a fantastic look at the state of space food today, as well as a look back at space cuisine's humblest beginnings. Starting with the stereotypical tinfoil-wrapped meal simulators (TM) and individually shrink-wrapped portions of freeze-dried pot roast, you can see the progression through the "meat salad" of the 1970s (don't ask) up to vegetables grown in special hydroponic chambers, using LEDs.

Turns out LEDs don't just make your skin as smooth as Luther Vandross' voice — they also make potatoes grow like gangbusters. And apparently you can increase crop yields to crazy levels, using high-intensity lighting, hydroponic cultures and optimal CO2 levels. (But how long before these super-plants turn sentient and want to eat us?) Also, apparently tomatoes grown in microgravity get freakishly large and have no seeds. Freakish!

But it's not easy, and astronauts are going to need green thumbs on their space gloves:

Growing plants in space presents unique problems: The absence of wind and insects means some crops need to be pollinated by hand; natural light isn't available inside space bases; crops can't be too labor- or energy-intensive, as bases have limited manpower and natural resources; and of course there is no naturally available water source, so water efficiency is extremely important.

Hand-pollinating plants in space sounds like a nightmare. It'll be worth it, though, once astronauts can savor the Everclear they've made with their own two hands. [Gourmet]