Flower Blooms On ISS — How One Zinnia Holds Promise For Long-Term Space Travel

If humans hope to travel deep into space we’ll have to figure out how to grow fresh food in micro-gravity so that astronauts can live off more than just freeze-dried ice cream. The fact that a flower has bloomed on the International Space Station is a sign that this goal may just be possible.

Vegetables have been grown successfully in space before (the Russians grew greens called mizuna and peas 10 years ago), but this is the first time a flower has actually bloomed, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

This is important because plenty of tasty veggies are flowering plants — like tomatoes.

The flower that bloomed is a pretty orange zinnia, and was displayed proudly on Twitter by astronaut/space gardener Scott Kelly.

He’s been tending to plant life on ISS for months as part of a flowering experiment called “Veggie” that will help scientists understand how flora grow in space. Last year, Kelly worked hard to cultivate lettuce, the first batch failing due to “drought stress.” They watered the second batch more generously and by summer, the astronauts feasted on salad.

The mission to raise zinnias met with similar challenges. At the end of December, the gardener shared a photo on Twitter of zinnias with curled and moldy leaves, reported The Independent. But the growing experiment wasn’t a complete failure. The astronauts collected the mold, saved and frozen it, and scientists back on Earth will take a closer look.

A month later, all of Scott’s hard work has paid off again, and this weekend he revealed that the flower has bloomed. The first step in an attempt to produce fresh veggies in space, therefore, has been a success. NASA wrote in a blog post that this opens a “new chapter.”

“The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce. It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics,” wrote Veggie project manager, Trent Smith. “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.”

Veggie has been in progress since 2014. The lettuce and now this new bloomed space flower are grown in trays of water; the seeds are kept in bags of calcined clay (the same kind used in baseball fields) which increases aeration and lets them grow more easily. They’re lit by LED lights and nourished with automatic-release fertilizer.

This bloomed zinnia sets the stage for further experiments in a couple years. By 2018, NASA hopes astronauts will be growing tomatoes in space. But first, a SpaceX spacecraft will deliver cabbage and red romaine lettuce seeds to the ISS.

The benefits of being able to produce a juicy tomato or starchy potato in space are obvious, explained project scientist (and the person who spearheaded Veggie), Gioia Massa. Right now, astronauts subsist on freeze-dried chow designed for long-term storage and supply deliveries provide fresh fruits and vegetables on occasion, but these don’t last long.

“I think having this fresh food source available is going to be critical. The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits.”

Having a bloomed flower or a line of bushy tomatoes growing on the ISS could also be critical in helping astronauts cope with long-term space travel as a reminder of Earth. After all, spacecrafts are isolated, artificial, and devoid of nature, said Alexandra Whitmire, of NASA’s Human Research Program.

“While not all crew members may enjoy taking care of plants, for many, having this option is beneficial. In future missions, the importance of plants will likely increase given the crews’ limited connection to Earth,” she said. “Studies from other isolated and confined environments, such as Antarctic stations, demonstrate the importance of plants in confinement, and how much more salient fresh food becomes psychologically, when there is little stimuli around.”

[Photo By pongnathee kluaythong/Shutterstock]