Plants growing in space will not only look pretty and groundbreaking, but will also be critical to deep space missions and the human journey to Mars, where astronauts will need to grow their own food.
On Valentine’s Day, astronaut Scott Kelly – who proudly called themselves “farmers in space” – harvested zinnias in the Veggie system aboard the International Space Station. An on-ground team at the Kennedy Space Center also harvested the same flowering plants last Thursday.
Plants growing on the ISS faced a number of additional stressors, including unforeseen fungus growth. Fortunately, they pulled through, thanks to the collaboration between the ISS astronauts and the ground team.
“We need to learn a tremendous amount to help develop more robust sustainable food production systems as NASA moves toward long-duration exploration and the journey to Mars,” says scientist Gioia Massa, who is part of NASA’s Veggie team.
Some of the leading concerns and areas of research are long-term seed stow and germination, as well as the effects of pollen on space crew health.
Hopefully, data could also show how colorful flowers could boost the morale of people on space missions. Behavioral scientists, for instances, said that tending to the floating garden gives astronauts pleasure of engaging in meaningful work.
The plant pillows that contain the zinnia seeds were activated both on the ISS and the ground experiment back in November 2015. They grew for almost three months, watered and cared for every day by Kelly and other crew members.
Kelly along with Dr. Kjell Lindgren were the first astronauts to sample their own space garden by eating its lettuce in 2015. The previous red romaine lettuce crop grew for 33 days.
"The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce," says Veggie project manager Trent Smith, pinpointing the flowering plant’s sensitivity to light and environmental conditions, as well as its longer growth period of up to 80 days. "Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow.”
The zinnia garden is deemed a precursor to growing longer-term fruit crops including peppers, tomatoes, and staples such as peanuts and beans.
On ground, engineers Chuck Spern and John Carver cut the harvested blooms and preserved them through air-drying at room temperature, freezing at minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit), or pressing. Plant pillows and plants at the ISS will be preserved the same way and returned to Earth for analysis and future missions.
“The flowers going to seed are a good demonstration for sustainable food crops,” said “Veggie” expert and NASA mechanical engineer Nicole Dufour. The goal is a seed-to-seed demonstration.
An upcoming experiment will involve sending the ISS team some seeds for “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce and “Tokyo Bekana” Chinese cabbage on a future cargo re-supply mission.