In “The Martian,” Astronaut Mark Watney finds himself alone, stranded in the worst possible place any human could live in: Mars. With only meager supplies in hand, Watney bravely commences on a mind-blowing, ingenious feat—to grow potatoes in Mars.
Unbelievably, at least in the movie, Watney triumphs in cultivating a potato farm in the controlled environment of the space hub by distilling water from air and mixing his own feces with Martian soil.
Well, just like the mind blowing movie “The Martian,” NASA, has recently surprised the world by reporting the growth of the first flower in space. On January 16, 2016, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted a beautiful image of the zinnia flower with the words: “First ever flower grown in space makes its debut!” and “Yes, there are other life forms in space!” Moreover, according to Newsweek, NASA described the blooming success as a “good precursor” for both future research in plant growth on Mars and longer distance space travel.
During NASA’s trip to Mars, one-year astronaut Scott Kelly and his crew members engaged on plant experiment called Veg-01 since May 2014. The Zinnia flowers and other experimental plants like the red romaine lettuce were grown in the microgravity environment of space by the “Veggie plant growth system.”
Veggie is the largest plant growth chamber that utilizes LED lights for plants to grow up to a foot and a half. Seeds were deposited in the Veggie root-mat pillows and nourished with water and microorganisms. And undoubtedly, astronauts faced numerous challenges throughout the process—one was “guttation,” where due to the plant’s behavior of forcing out water molecules out of the tips of leaves, the level of humidity would increase, forming mold on the plants. Astronauts nonetheless solved the problem by constantly sanitizing the plants with cleaning wipes and fans.
Dr. Gioia Massa, the leader of NASA’s science team stated, “While the plants haven’t grown perfectly, I think we have gained a lot from this, and we are learning both more about plants and fluids and also how better to operate between ground and station. Regardless of final flowering outcome we will have gained a lot.”
The zinnias are in fact edible as intended by the NASA, who are hoping that Veggie will become a new food resource, providing vitamins and nutrients for space crews during their long timely missions beyond Mars. By 2017, tomato plants and blueberries are to be grown, lead by Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko who will undertake a yearlong stay on the space station in March. Veggie may also prove to be a benefit for improving biomass production for Earth, or even as recreational gardening activities for astronauts.
Dr. Gioa Massa further commented, expressing the value of this research.
“The farther and longer that humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”
The NASA team anticipates that Veggie space gardening will prove its value in research aboard the space station and perhaps even the future on Mars. Afterall, Mars is most hospitable right after Earth as the planet is not too extremely hot or cold, and the soil is even composed of water that can be extracted. As astounding it is to imagine that we’ll soon be able to harvest crops in space, science and technology will continue to surprise us and impact our life for the time ahead.
– Sammie Kim (’18)