NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is currently coming up on the end of his year-long stay on the International Space Station. That means it's been almost 300 days since he's experienced all the magnificent nature and plant life that planet Earth has to offer. Fortunately for Kelly, the station has its very own Veggie plant growth facility, where the crew members have been growing plants of their own. And the most recent batch of crops has just bloomed: bright orange zinnia flowers.
The flowers have been somewhat difficult to foster
The astronauts planted the zinnias late last year, but they've been somewhat difficult to foster. Just two weeks after the flowers started growing, water started seeping out of some of the leaves — a symptom of excess internal pressure. A few leaves also started curling up and bending down, indicating that the plants were stressed and their roots were flooded. The crew decided to increase the air flow in the plant growth chamber, which they thought would fix the problems, but they were derailed thanks to an unexpected spacewalk in December.
It started to look like the zinnias weren't going to make it. Their leaves started dying and mold began growing. Kelly stepped in, cutting away the pieces of mold and increasing the fans in the chamber to higher speeds. But that increased air flow caused the leaves to dry out. Kelly channeled his "inner Mark Watney," and experimented with the crops, making his own modifications to keep them alive. Two of the flowers died, but thanks to Kelly's intervention, two thrived and at least one bloomed this weekend.
The zinnias aren't the first plants grown in space. The Veggie plant growth chamber was used to grow batches of red romaine lettuce, some of which were eaten by the station's crew members last year. The zinnias were chosen as the next plant, to help the astronauts better understand how flowers grow in microgravity. Kelly has made the claim that these are the first flowers grown in space, though that may not be true. Astronaut Don Pettit grew a sunflower on the station in 2012 — it looked like this. And plants have certainly flowered in space before. We've reached out to NASA for comment on whether or not this is a true first.
Still, the zinnias at least provide some natural beauty to the station's tech-heavy environment. It's just a small reminder of the nature Kelly will be coming home to soon.
Update January 18th, 12:31PM ET: Clarified history of other plants grown in space.