As someone who comes from a long line of gardeners, I was most interested to read a report from earlier in the year, that scientists had grown plants on the International Space Station as it floated around in space.
This was not new, plants have been grown successfully in space before, but it is worthy of our attention that the problems and their solutions can be scientifically documented.
After successfully growing and eating a Romaine lettuce in 2014, astronaut Scott Kelly grew a more complicated, beautiful zinnia flower. It seemed to be a picture of health – until he discovered spots of mould on the leaves. He sought instructions from the ground crew about changing watering regimes. But in the end he ignored their advice and used his own observations, treating the plants the way he would do in his own garden if he saw them distressed, noting carefully all his procedures and reasoning for future reference.
Whatever experiments scientists do, whether on Earth or in space, sometimes the setbacks and failures teach them more about improving procedures than if everything went perfectly.
Plants have been grown in space since 1971
Although this was touted as a "first", it was only a first for this particular program (named the Veggie program). In actual fact, plants have been grown in space by gardeners of many nations, since the Russian Salyut 1.
Here is a brief summary of some successful space gardens:
- 1971: Soviet cosmonauts Victor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov grew flax plants on Salyut 1. They wrote about the positive psychological benefits, calling the plants their "pets".
- 1977: The crew of Salyut 6 grew onions so successfully, that they asked their ground-based botanist, Galina Nechitailo, whether they could eat some of them. She asked them to keep the best four for the experiment, and Alexander Ivanchenkov and his team ate the rest. They could not, however, get the experimental plants to set any seed, partly because the air was not able to be cleaned properly with the scrubbers available at that time.
- 1982: On Salyut 7,a greenhouse with an antibacterial filter was installed, and Cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev admitted to giving his plants too much care, too much water, and "spoiling them". But his efforts paid off, and his Arabidopsis plant produced seeds – which were planted and thrived, producing more blossoms and seeds.
- 1986-2001: Greenhouses were installed on the Russian MIR space station, and various leafy greens were planted, including those that could be eaten as salad. Both American astronauts (including Peggy Whitson, who grew soybeans and disobeyed orders when she munched on some mustard) and Russian cosmonauts were successful gardeners, and they argued back with their Earth-based advisers about how to care for the plants – as all true gardeners do. They reported that caring for the plants was a pleasure, not a chore.
- 1993: NASA gardeners on the space shuttle grew the same popular laboratory plant Arabidopsis thaliana from sprouts, and they budded and bloomed. They later did a full seed-to-seed growth experiment with this species in 2001.
- 1996: Astronaut Shannon Lucid sprouted wheat on MIR.
- 1997: Ukranian astronaut Leonid Kadenuk on the spade shuttle successfully grew Brassica rapa (field mustard): a relative of many common vegetables.
- 2003: NASA posted an image of flowering pea plants (this wasn't the first).
- 2007: Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin was photographed munching on his garlic shoots.
- 2010: Astronaut Kjell Lindgren was photographed showing a whole tray of red romaine lettuces on the space station, before the crew ate them for lunch.
- 2011: Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov had a garden cabinet on the space station
- 2012: NASA astronaut Don Pettit's plants in the space station included a sunflower and a zucchini which wrote its own blog with the assistance of Pettit. One entry read "I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me. I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini—and I am in space." The sunflower developed some type of fungus or mould, which was treated successfully with an antiseptic wipe from the human medical kit, and went on to produce seeds. It is surprising that this information wasn't used when Kelly's zinnia developed a similar problem.
Life imitating art
In the press release from 2016, the scientists in the space station refer to the science fiction book (and also a film) called "The Martian" by Andy Weir, in which the fictitious main character is stranded on Mars. He grows potatoes to eat (as well as managing to undertake other highly technological feats) so that he can survive until he is rescued. Although I don't usually read this genre, I enjoyed this book, and my scientific advisers tell me that most of the things in this story would be feasible. One particular review gives the description of the gardening a B+ for accuracy:
In this case, the author may have reversed the standard dictum and used his "art" as a model to imitate "real life". In part, he may have drawn on the many cases of astronauts being gardeners, but he also would have read about the amazing feat of the Apollo 13 astronauts, as depicted in the movie "Houston, we have a problem!" In real life, they survived an explosion and malfunction of their space craft and all came home safely. I have always thought that this story should be better acknowledged in our culture, with its actual heroism and heart-stopping tension that was more intense than any science fiction show.
Adam as the gardener
From the Bible, we see that God created Adam to be a steward, carer and gardener of creation, for example in Genesis chapter 2 verses 15-16;" Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely ....'".
Despite what happens next in the story, where Adam and Eve disobey God and eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they remained (and as a result, we remain) custodians of the plants that we need to grow in order to eat, whether we are on Earth or on a mission in space.
"The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits," Veggie science team lead Gioia Massa said in a NASA press statement.
Those of us who love gardens, gardening and gardeners (my wife, Delma, is an ardent and successful gardener) should not be surprised that many astronauts are very happy to follow God's plan to grow plants wherever they happen to be in the Universe.
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Baptist Minister 45 years
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Married to Delma for 45 years with 4 children and 6 grand children