You’ve probably seen The Martian by now or at least know one of the key factors of the movie’s story, the growing of potatoes on Mars. If not, this article will be a major spoiler. I don’t know about you but I found it really impressive when the main character “Mark Watney” played by Matt Damon found himself stuck on mars and instead of complaining until death he actually started growing his own food. Although it was a struggle the main character managed to grow his own crops of potatoes leading to his survival until a rescue team managed to return for him.
If by some reasons the idea of growing plants into space seemed like something for the future, astronauts from the International Space Station(ISS) actually have a veggie plant growth facility where they already managed to grow plants since 2014. The first project astronauts from ISS had was to grow red romaine lettuce which was started in May 2014. Biologists and agriculturalists from earth made some very specific guidelines which included steps that the astronauts had to follow strictly as for the lettuce crops to grow. The first crop failed due to drought stress but gave the astronauts enough insight to help them manage better the second crop.
In July 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly activated the second crop of lettuce and by applying all the lessons learned from the first failed crop, a month later the ISS crew was able to eat the first lettuce grown in space. Although the situation doesn’t compare with the story from The Martian, NASA’s ISS success experiment, gives a lot of potential for further experiments like growing plants on Mars. The idea of making crops into space is still limited to the ISS environment but nonetheless further information has been gathered until today.
The experiment was to study how plants could possibly grow in artificial environments but it appeared to raise the morale of the astronauts involved and scientists from earth decided that this sort of experiments should be continued in space to gain more knowledge but also to help the astronauts to deal better with their confinement. The next agriculture assignment was growing Zinnia flowers because if they manage to bloom it would give more insight on how plants with flowers(even potatoes) might grow in space and how the differences in gravity affects the blooming process.
As Scott Kelly already knew most of the steps from the lettuce crops, gladly took the Zinnia flowers project and started the growing process as fast as he could. Just like with the lettuce, the first attempt resulted in too much stress for the flower which started to build up internal pressure leading to the elimination of excess water through its leaves.
Also, because of the high humidity, the leaves started to curl and bend downwards which was a bad sign. Inspired by Mark Watney from The Martian, Scott Kelly decided to ignore the steps written in the guidelines for growing Zinnia flowers and took the role of an autonomous gardener to start taking care of the plant as he would on earth. By 12 January 2016, the plant started to show signs of possibly blooming petals on a few buds. This success alongside the failures gave so much information about how to properly grow plants in space that biologists and agronomists from earth decided to prepare more red romaine lettuce, Chinese cabbage and also dwarf tomatoes to be sent in space by 2018.
By far Scott Kelly and his “space gardening team” are the most excited about these successful experiments but I can say that all of us can see the potential and knowledge that we can absorb from this unprecedented events. All in all, in the future we might see something like The Martian story happening in real life and that is truly amazing.