NASA is celebrating a space plant victory: Over the weekend, astronaut Scott Kelly showed off zinnia flowers he'd grown and coaxed back to health on board the International Space Station. But despite what some headlines are reporting, these aren't really the first flowers in space.
In fact, they're not even NASA's first flowers on the ISS – though they are the first grown from start-to-finish in an official NASA mission. NASA's first bloom had a much quirkier origin: In 2012, astronaut Don Pettit grew several plants (including a sunflower) in plastic baggies he'd brought on board as a personal science experiment. The tiny blossom didn't fare well, but it did technically bloom.
And according to the website NASA Watch, cosmonauts produced flowers several times in the pre-ISS days of spaceflight. It seems that in at least one case, the entire growth process occurred during flight. That was a lettuce plant, but lettuce plants can flower – and according to research published on the subject, it appears the Russian lettuce did.
But that doesn't really matter. These space flowers might not literally be the first, but they do represent NASA's first concentrated effort to grow flowering plants in a controlled space environment. The hope is that experience with plants like zinnias will help astronauts learn how to grow more traditionally edible flowering plants like tomatoes.
NASA recently reported that the touch-and-go gardening experience had helped the team learn a lot. The flowers were planted after two rounds of lettuce (the second crop of which astronauts got to eat), and managed first by NASA's Kjell Lindgren. By the time Lindgren headed back to Earth and Kelly took over, the plants weren't looking so hot: They showed signs of excess humidity and root flooding, and soon they started to grow mold.
At one point, Kelly told the mission team back home that he wanted permission to water the crops as he saw fit. The team agreed and gave him a set of general guidelines to replace their precise instructions on care, and Kelly became an autonomous space farmer. Since then, the zinnias have slowly come back to health.
Even the moldy bits trimmed off during the bleakest days of the experiment will come in handy. They've been stowed away so that scientists back on Earth can study what exactly went wrong.
Studying the weirdness of microgravity flowers will help scientists design better growing equipment and procedures, which could make it possible for astronauts to rely on fresh crops during longterm spaceflight missions. And in addition to the obvious culinary benefits, NASA scientists say, the process of caring for a delicate plant can help improve the morale of a space crew.