As of January 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly had successfully grown what seemed to be the first flower to bloom in space. Earlier this year, Scott Kelly's ISS mission attempted to grow Zinnia plants in space. Zinnia growth habits are similar to those of vegetables; studying their growth could provide valuable information for future life in space. This study can lead to the evolution of NASA's space plantation program. Humans are already on their way to growing their own produce in space!
Only two weeks into the project, the team noticed signs of high humidity and air flow inside the space craft's plant cubicles. The plant's seed container even started to leak water because of the high air pressure, and after the leakage the Zinnia leaves became awkwardly bent and curled. Scott Kelly took a closer look and noticed that most of the plants were growing mold. The future looked bleak for Zinnias in space.
Soon after, astronaut Kelly took charge of the situation. Telling NASA that he would decide when to water them instead of following the provided schedule, he wanted to try an unconventional approach: "...if we're going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water." He would later tweet about the plants throughout the course of his expedition. Kelly managed to nurse one plant that came to bloom and supposedly become "the first flower to ever do so in space."
Despite common belief, Scott Kelly's Zinnia was <strong>not </strong>the first flower to bloom in space. In fact, it was not even the first flower to bloom in the American space program. It was, however, the first Zinnia and the first flower to sprout from The Veggie Experimental Setup.
Most of the headlines you have been reading about space flowers are incorrect. There has been a long history of beautiful plants that have blossomed far beyond our planet's exosphere.
A flower bloomed in space as recently as three years ago. NASA astronaut Don Pettit grew plants in 2012 as a personal experiment, including a space zucchini and a blossoming sunflower. “I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me,” wrote astronaut Pettit from the zucchini's perspective: “I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini—and I am in space.” It sounds like astronauts have quite a bit of time for creativity!
The Soviet Union led the way in floral space exploration in an earlier era. Soviet cosmonauts Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov earned the title of First Space Gardeners for their tender care of flax plants in 1971 on Salyut 1, one of the first Soviet space stations. The pair were the first to write about the psychological benefits of gardening, with Patsayev teasing, “These are our pets.” Volkov was even more openly affectionate, declaring, “They are our love.”
Despite these lofty titles from their respective governments, it turns out that neither of the space teams mentioned in this article were actually the first space gardeners. The earliest plant-in-space experiment dates back to July 30, 1946 when maize seeds were launched into space and successfully recovered. Through various tests, scientists have defined the theory that a seed can survive outer space and still produce a plant upon its return to earth.
After the Soviet Union's historic victory, they efforts to become expert space gardeners hit a dead end with lost modules and crashed return vessels. The 1997 greenhouses on the Mir Space Station were a step back in technology, achieving a political objective rather than scientific advancement in Space Gardening. Even so, this year is when international space collaboration kicked off. American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts harvested seeds from space plants, resowing them in the Space Station for the first multi-generational space crops.
If we are going to send humans to explore deep space, to go to the Moon and out to Mars, we are going to need space gardeners. “I don’t see future space crews leaving the Earth for long periods without having the ability to grow their own food,” says engineer Shane Topham in a 2010 NASA press statement. “The knowledge that we are gaining is enabling us to extend our exploration and future colonization of space.”