NASA astronaut Scott Kelly has proven to have a green thumb. He has successfully grown the first flower in space after the zinnia plants the International Space Station (ISS) crew planted almost died. It is a small step towards NASA’s goal of one day developing bioregenerative food production systems for the space station and long-duration exploration missions.
The astronauts started growing zinnias late last year, but shortly afterwards the team noticed symptoms of high humidity and limited air flow. Soon after that the plants grew mold. Kelly then took charge. He told NASA that he’d decide when to water the plants 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. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should wake the grass today.” After showing NASA a photo of the dying organisms, he said he’d have to “channel his inner Mark Watney” (Mark Damon in The Martian). Although some plants ended up dying anyway, he was able to nuture at least one until it flowered. On January 16, Kelly tweeted the photo of the first ISS flower.
“The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce,” Kelly said. “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.”
Eventually the crew also grew veggies aboard the ISS. They managed to grow a good batch and even had the chance to eat their produce. It’ll take some time before any astronaut gets to eat a space grown tomato, as NASA isn’t planning to snd seeds to the ISS until 2018. Being able to grow food en route to Mars will make the crew more self-sufficient and lower the cost of a mission as less food needs to be launched into orbit.