Sometimes, a zinnia is just a zinnia. Other times, it’s a landmark. This weekend, a pretty flower became so much more when astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted its picture back to Earth. The brilliant orange bloom is the first flower ever grown in space.
The flower was grown as part of the International Space Station's (ISS) plant growth system, also known as “Veggie” (Vegetable Production System). The experiment, which is the first to grow food in space, made its way to the station in May 2014. It’s a chamber equipped with green, red and blue LED lights, a root mat and “pillows” with seeds, which are watered periodically and treated to a barrage of photos and scientific experiments to see how plants do in microgravity.
The goal was to treat astronauts to leafy greens in space, and has been quite a success—a relief to astronauts who otherwise have no access to freshly grown produce on the station. This new little (edible) flower will certainly brighten up the otherwise sterile atmosphere of the ISS, but it wasn't just selected just for its looks. Scientists hope to learn more about space gardening from these tough-to-grow flowers that could help with their next goal crop—tomatoes.
The gorgeous picture of the zinnia offers hope for future crops, but it was a close call.
A drought wiped out several plants at the beginning of the experiment, and the zinnias that followed the lettuce experiment didn’t fare very well. Scientists later figured out that the plant mat that contained the flower seeds was inhibiting air flow and causing the plants to become moldy and die. An unplanned spacewalk didn’t help the needy plants, and turnover on the station caused Kelly, who’s in the midst of a year in space, to become designated gardener.
Despite even more hiccups, Kelly convinced NASA to let him water the plants when they looked like they needed it rather than on a rigorous schedule. The zinnia is now growing gorgeously—and in a release about the gardening coup, NASA notes that new crops will head up to the station soon.
In 2018, there may even be tomatoes aboard the craft—but even those flowering plants won’t hold a candle to space’s beautiful first bloom.