Gardening in Space

An Illustrious History

After the popularity of our April Fool’s Blog concerning lunar grass seeds last month, we felt duty-bound to write about the ongoing international effort and legacy of horticulture beyond our planet. The history of gardening in space is hardly a recent one, while the general public’s first encounter with the great void came with the historic moon landing in 1969, the history of space travel and horticulture is significantly older.

Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, was the first human being to leave our planet in 1961; however, he was still fifteen years behind the first living thing to serve as our ambassador to the stars. In 1946, purpose-bred strains of Maize (Corn) seeds were sent up on the U.S. commanded V2 rocket. After failing to recover these first pioneers, a second batch was sent up later the same year, and this time, we got them back.

The purpose of these early experiments actually had nothing to do with cultivation but was meant to test the effects of extraterrestrial radiation on living tissue. After Corn’s first flight, the prospect of plants in space was shelved for twenty-five years. Then, in 1971, astronauts of the Apollo 14 mission took seeds with them as they completed a full orbit of the moon. Later these trees were planted and affectionately redubbed ‘Moon Seeds’.

Two years later, the Skylab mission began the first attempts to actually cultivate seeds in space and succeeded in growing rice in a plant growth chamber. Less than a decade after that, the crew of the Salyut 7 space station broke new ground by raising the first plants that we’re able to successfully flower and produce seeds of their own – representing the first full life cycle of a living organism in space. It was also the first use of greenhouse apparatus beyond Earth’s atmosphere and would pave the way for more
ambitious endeavours in the future.

Space Gardening Today

The last decade has seen some of the most exciting advancements in our relationship with plants in space. In 2015, American astronauts were the first to actually consume plants, red romaine lettuce, in this case, grown entirely aboard the ISS (International Space Station).

In 2017, the ISS doubled down on its past successes and installed a nearly entirely self-sustaining plant growth system onboard the craft. Shortly before the start of this decade, a Chinese team succeeded in growing the first plants on the lunar surface in a sealed biosphere.

The benefits of successfully growing and propagating plants in space are myriad, the most obvious being that they can assist and eventually sustain the recycling of the limited Oxygen we take up – allowing astronauts to stay in space for longer and longer periods of time.

The question of time spent in space, and the ability to increase it, raises all sorts of exhilarating possibilities not only for astronauts but for the rest of us as well. It’s no secret that NASA and figures like Elon Musk are keen to establish colonies beyond our planet – both for research and insurance purposes. Best not to have all your eggs in one cosmic basket, after all.

While the challenges to our spreading through the solar system and beyond are numerous, reliable plant growth would answer a few of the most fundamental early questions. Questions like how to create a breathable atmosphere on a planet without one, how to most efficiently recycle water and fresh air and, perhaps most important, how to create a sustainable, reliable source of food.

Space Gardens of the Future

Using a combination of LED lighting, infrared sensors, and plenty of TLC from our best and brightest, space agencies have established a protocol for successfully cultivating plants in space.

“We need to provide food that meets the caloric and nutritional requirements for our astronauts, but we want to go a step further. The variety, acceptability, and nutritional content of the food system have the potential to go beyond just sustaining the human body to promote psychological and physiological health.”
Grace Douglas, Advanced food technology lead scientist, NASA

As the decades and centuries pass, more of our species will disembark our emerald home to venture out into the Galaxy. Sometimes to think effectively about the scientific course of the future, we must stray into the realm of science fiction. Provided we are able to continue to survive and thrive on Earth, large-scale space travel and colonisation are inevitable.

Already we are able to replicate the growth of radishes, peas, and sunflowers and, in time, houseplants and purely aesthetic varieties will join them. The psychological benefits of being surrounded by plants and nature are well-documented here on Earth, and our human minds will need the company of leafy friends in order to live happy and calm lives beyond our planet.

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