Although astronaut cuisine has improved considerably over the decades, this year's Thanksgiving menu aboard the International Space Station still consists mostly of freeze-dried and dehydrated dishes. But future missions will likely have access to one fresh vegetable: sweet potatoes.

Image: Erez Shaked

NASA is researching and developing ways to extend the shelf life of food needed for deep space missions and to minimize the volume of packaging. The agency also is using the space station as a laboratory to learn how to grow plants in space. The sweet potato may be one of the crops chosen for crews that travel to Mars. It provides an important energy source‚ÄĒcarbohydrate‚ÄĒas well as beta-carotene. Also:

The sweet potato is able to adapt to a controlled environment with artificial sunlight. It is highly adaptable to a variety of vine-training architectures. The main shoot tip, or the end of the main vine, is the only really sensitive part. It sends hormones throughout the plant that stimulate root development, which is important since it is the roots that become the sweet potatoes. The side shoots, if picked when young, are tender and can be eaten in salads, improving the plant's usefulness.

In the meantime, if you want a taste of space on Earth, here is NASA's recipe for its famous cornbread stuffing. It also includes directions for "space flight preparation."