NASA astronaut Scott Kelly shows the image of zinnia flower grown aboard ISS. This is the first time a flower has bloomed in outer space.
“First ever flower grown in space makes its debut.” Kelly announced on Twitter.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 16, 2016
“While the plants haven’t grown perfectly,” said Dr. Gioia Massa, NASA science team lead for Veggie, “I think we have gained a lot from this, and we are learning both more about plants and fluids and also how better to operate between ground and station. Regardless of final flowering outcome we will have gained a lot.”
The astronauts started growing zinnias late last year, but a mere two weeks later, the team noticed symptoms of excessively high humidity and limited air flow. The plants’ wicks (seed containers), for instance, leaked water, and the leaves became unnaturally bent and curled. Around Christmastime, things came to a head when some of the plants grew mold.
“The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce, said Trent Smith, Veggie project manager. “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.
Kelly took charge of the zinnias after that — he even told NASA he’d decide when to water them instead of following a schedule. “…if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water,” he said. On December 27th, he tweeted a photo of the ailing organisms, saying he’d have to “channel his inner Mark Watney” to ensure their survival. While some of the plants ended up dying anyway, he ultimately succeeded nurturing at least one until it flowered.
The molds and the dead plants the crew collected are nowhere near useless, though. The ground team will study them when they get the samples back, so we can understand how different it is to grow plants in outer space — on Mars, in particular — compared to here on Earth. NASA chose zinnias for this stage of the project, because it has a longer growth duration than romain lettuces. That makes them an important stepping stone towards growing tomatoes.