It is a lonesome and beautiful sight–-an orange zinnia floating upside-down in a plastic bag. If you just glance at the image, you risk missing the most striking detail: the rounded surface of our blue/green planet in the background. This remarkable plant, lovingly brought to bloom by astronaut Scott Kelly, rightly became instafamous, # SpaceFlower.
Why was this such a feat? Why are space agencies working so hard to grow things in space? Up above Earth’s atmosphere, plants are left with too little of one key factor for their proper growth and too much of another. (Any guesses?)
Let’s start with what’s lacking: gravity. On Earth, most plant roots use gravity to orient themselves, and they grow in the direction of gravity. Why? Because that will lead the roots down into the soil where they can find the water and dissolved nutrients that plants need. The fancy name for this phenomenon: gravitropism.
And what is there way too much of? The sun’s rays. Yes, most plants need the sun for the life-giving energy its rays provide, but not all of the light energy coming from the sun is good for a plant’s health. On Earth, the ozone layer protects plant life from most of the harmful rays, just as it does for humans. In space, while there is some protection provided by the walls of the station or shuttle, both plants and humans are bombarded with much higher levels of radiation than they get on Earth, not good for any organism’s DNA.
If humans want to spend any serious amount of time in space (be it in a ship or on Mars or the Moon), we will have to figure out how to successfully grow plants despite these conditions. Plants will be key in terms of providing oxygen, clean water and fresh food for us. A trip to Mars, our closest neighbor, will require supplies for around nine months, and that is just the trip there. Additional supplies will be needed for any time spent on planet, not to mention the return trip. Creating self-sustaining biospheres that include plant life is a necessary step. In addition, the same psychological benefits attributed to gardening here on Earth can be reaped by tending plants in space. This benefit becomes vital given the mental health risks associated with being confined in a small space with the same co-workers for long spans of time.
That is why the lone zinnia bloom was so celebrated in 2016. Yet, the reports of it being the first flower in space are, gasp(!!), not quite correct. Astronaut Don Pettit grew a sunflower aboard the International Space Station as part of a personal biology experiment in 2012. He also worked to grow a space zucchini and a space broccoli, the latter of which came down from the station with him, finding a new home in his backyard. For more information on his experiment, check out the blog that Pettit wrote while in space, adorably from the zucchini’s point of view. (Can you really resist reading a blog titled Diary of a Space Zucchini?)
The Book of World Records lists still another contender for first flower: the Arabidopsis that Russian cosmonauts grew on the Salyut 7 Space Station in 1982. But it's possible that the first flowers in space weren’t accompanied by humans at all. There are reports of flowering plants in the Russian space probe Cosmos 110 which was “manned” by space dogs Veterok and Ugolyok in 1966. Another feather in their canine caps: their 22 days in space still stands as the record for cosmodogs.
With all of the hype around the first flower, imagine the excitement that will surround other botanical firsts in space. First space tomato to be grown and eaten. The first lunar lily or martian mango. And the one I am most excited about: the first alien flower. Fingers crossed, it turns out nothing like Audrey II, the fictional space sprout from Little Shop of Horrors, who ate a few humans on its way to conquering our planet.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of otherworldly-looking plants grown right here on Earth that we can enjoy. Just tell me the heliconias and pincushions used in the arrangement to the right don't look like something out of a sci-fi feature. To get your very own Earth flowers while waiting for their space brethren to become available, click here.