January 19, 2016 – On January 16, 2016, Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly shared photographs of a blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station. Kelly wrote, “Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower #YearInSpace”
This flowering crop experiment began on November 16, 2015, when NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the Veggie system and its rooting “pillows” containing zinnia seeds.
The challenging process of growing the zinnias provided an exceptional opportunity for scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they’ll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening. In late December, Kelly found that the plants “weren’t looking too good,” and told the ground team, “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.”
The Veggie team on Earth created what was dubbed “The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener,” and gave basic guidelines for care while putting judgment capabilities into the hands of Kelly. Rather than pages and pages of detailed procedures that most science operations follow, the care guide was a one-page, streamlined resource to support Kelly as an autonomous gardener.
Soon, the flowers were on the rebound, and on January 12, pictures showed the first peeks of petals beginning to sprout on a few buds.
Sierra Nevada Corporation’s subsidiary, Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC), is responsible for the Veggie plant growth facility, which was installed on the ISS in May 2014.
Colorado astronaut Steve Swanson activated and harvested the first crop grown in the facility, a variety of red romaine lettuce, which was frozen and brought back to Earth for testing.
A second crop of lettuce was activated last June and yielded fresh lettuce for crew consumption in August. Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui of Japan became the first astronauts to sample vegetables grown in space.
In November, Lindgren activated the Veggie plant growth system and its rooting “pillows” containing Zinnia seeds. Zinnias will help provide precursory information about other flowering plants that could be grown in space.
“Growing the Zinnia plants will help advance our knowledge of how plants flower in the Veggie growth system, and will enable fruiting plants like tomatoes to be grown and eaten in space using Veggie as the in-orbit garden,” said Trent Smith, Veggie program manager at Kennedy.
Researchers also hope to gather good data regarding long-duration seed stow and germination, whether pollen could be an issue, and the impacts on crew morale. Growing tomato plants on the space station is planned for 2017.
The growth of plants in space is paving the path for future life support systems that engage biological systems to help recycle water, regenerate breathable air, and augment the food supply for long duration space habitation in and far beyond low Earth orbit. The Veggie system also could be used by astronauts for recreational gardening activities during deep space missions and may have implications for improving growth and biomass production on Earth, benefiting the average citizen.