Say hello to the first* flower unfurled in space! This picture, shared on Jan. 16, 2016 by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, shows a plant that has – thanks to some TLC from Kelly – managed to produce the first-ever zinnia blooms in low-Earth orbit
and in fact the first flower grown outside of Earth’s biosphere. (Edit: read disclaimer below.)
The zinnias were grown in an experimental unit aboard the ISS called “Veggie,” sort of a miniature, collapsible greenhouse that uses LED lighting to grow plants from specialized packets containing seeds and fertilizer inside a clay-like matrix. On Aug. 10, 2015, Kelly, Lindgren, and JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui sampled some romaine lettuce grown inside Veggie, and in November the flowering plants were initiated.
Although at first the zinnias didn’t look promising. But it turns out all they needed was a little extra astronaut attention.
In late December, Kelly found that the plants “weren’t looking too good,” and told the ground team, “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.” (Source)
In response the ground team developed a how-to manual for growing space zinnias in the Veggie station, but left the final gardening decisions up to the astronauts – unlike many other experiments that are run basically by-the-book. As a result the plants bounced back, eventually producing the lovely orange bloom above.
Experiments like Veggie will help to develop systems for sustainable plant growth in space, which will be great for producing food on long-duration missions as well as giving spacecraft-bound astronauts other living organisms to raise and care for in a “community garden,” something which has been found to have physiological and emotional benefits.
More crops for Veggie are heading to the orbiting laboratory aboard SpaceX CRS-8 in Feb. 2016. The Veg-03 run will include two sets of Chinese cabbage and one set of red romaine lettuce. In 2018, there are plans to launch dwarf tomato seeds to the space station.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to watch “Silent Running” again…
*NOTE: There appear to be some caveats for the claims of “first” here. It may be more accurate to say “first flower grown by an official U.S. experiment,” since NASA astronaut Don Pettit successfully grew a species of sunflower (along with a zucchini and broccoli) as a personal “windowsill” experiment while aboard ISS in 2012, and Soviet cosmonauts cultivated Arabidopsis plants that flowered aboard the Salyut-7 station in 1982. They may not have been as pretty as Scott Kelly’s zinnia, but they were technically first – by about 34 years! (Thanks to Andrea Boyd on Twitter for the heads-up.)