For the first time, scientists aboard the International Space Station have successfully grown flowers. Astronaut Scott Kelly shared a photo of the space zinnia last week. It looks pretty good:
NASA explained on Tuesday that the blooms were in jeopardy last month, but with the astronauts' green thumbs, and the help of The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener, they revived them:
The zinnias are part of NASA's Veggie plant growth system, an experiment designed to see how well astronauts can grow produce in space. This crop was planted in November.
When the zinnias looked like they might not make it, Kelly told NASA's 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.”
Sounds pretty chill, but the zinnia rescue operation was intense. NASA notes that when mold was discovered on the zinnias in December, everyone was on alert:
The mold issue had [Veggie project manager Trent] Smith out of bed and the Veggie team on the phone by 4 a.m. Within four hours, new procedures were written and communicated to NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who took over care of the zinnias after Lindgren returned to Earth on Dec. 18. Kelly donned a dust mask as a safety measure, and cut away the affected, moldy plant tissue, which was then stowed in the minus eighty degree laboratory freezer (MELFI) so it could be returned to Earth and studied. The plant surfaces and plant pillow surfaces were sanitized with cleaning wipes, and the fans continued at a high speed in hopes of keeping the Veggie chamber dried out and mold growth abated.
Growing flowers will help researchers learn more about growing fruit in space. Plus, it's good to be around plants when you're so far from Earth. A member of NASA's Human Research Program, Alexandra Whitmire, explained that "plants can indeed enhance long duration missions in isolated, confined, and extreme environments—environments that are artificial and deprived of nature… while not all crew members may enjoy taking care of plants, for many, having this option is beneficial.”
It also means that we might have flowers when we set up camp on Mars, which would be nice.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.