Mark Watney isn’t the only astronaut with a green thumb!
Every failure is a learning opportunity — a chance to try again and do better. Few people know that better than the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), who are constantly broaching new territory and trying things that have only ever been done on Earth.
In May 2014, Veggie, a plant growth system, was set up on the ISS. At the time, Dr. Gioia Massa, the NASA science team lead for Veggie said "The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario."
The first plant grown in Veggie was romaine lettuce. There were some issues with drought stress which killed off the first crop, but the second crop was ready to eat in August 2015.
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The next plant grown on the ISS was a batch of zinnias. They were chosen not because of their beauty, but because they could help astronauts and scientists to understand how flowers grow in microgravity.
Trent Smith, Veggie project manager said: “It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant.”
Two weeks after they were planted, the plants weren’t looking so good. The humidity was too high for them and they were experiencing what is called guttation — an internal pressure build-up that forced water out of the tips of leaves. The leaves started dying and became moldy.
Astronaut Scott Kelly, who was taking care of the plant, cut the moldy bits off and froze them so that they could be studied back on Earth. The fans were turned on at high speed in hopes of drying the plants out.
It worked. The plants got dry — too dry in fact. They were now killing them through dehydration. At that point, Kelly spoke to the ground crew: “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”
This fit perfectly with what Nicole Dufour, who coordinated and led the testing of the flight hardware at Kennedy and wrote the crew procedures for the astronauts to use on the space station, said when the lab first opened: "I hope that the astronauts on the space station eventually will use the equipment to 'experiment' with their own seeds or projects."
Kelly was given permission to act as he saw fit. He tweeted that he was channeling his inner Mark Watney, learned from what had been going wrong and successfully grew two of the zinnia plants.
On January 12, the first peeks of petals began to sprout on some of the buds, and by January 16, they were fully blooming!
“In future missions, the importance of plants will likely increase given the crews' limited connection to Earth. Studies from other isolated and confined environments, such as Antarctic stations, demonstrate the importance of plants in confinement, and how much more salient fresh food becomes psychologically, when there is little stimuli around,” said Alexandra Whitmire, deputy element scientist for the Behavioral Health and Performance element in the NASA Human Research Program.
The next plants to be grown are Chinese cabbage and more romaine lettuce. By 2018, there are even plans to send dwarf tomato seeds up to the ISS!
Editor's Note (January 20): The original article called the zinnia the first flower to bloom in space when in fact the Soviets grew flowers in 1982. The title and article have been modified to reflect that.