We are beginning our space exploration journey as humans, but we can already grow plants in space. But why is that important? Of course, we hope to one day bring a piece of our home to our planets, but plants’ importance doesn’t end on dreams of colonization. They are crucial to the well-being of astronauts, and the experiments have been quite successful. So let’s take a look at the history and importance of growing plants in space.

History of Growing Plants in Space

Beginnings – Studies of Radiation

Technically speaking, “special strands of seeds” were the first Earth-born organisms sent to space. Harvard and Naval Research Laboratory scientists were concerned with the effects of cosmic radiation on living tissues. A U.S V-2 rocket reached 134 kilometers in July 1946, but the samples weren’t recovered. Later that month, maize successfully traveled to space and back; soon, rye and cotton followed. In 1971, 500 tree seeds traveled around the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission. After coming back to Earth, they successfully developed into trees with no noticeable changes. Those early missions became essential for future space missions planning.

First Pernament Residents

The first plant had grown in space almost thirty years ago. In 1982 a kind of Arabidopsis became the first plant to grow and produce seeds outside of Earth. The crew of Soviet Salyut 7 missions used a Lithuanian-designed micro-greenhouse apparatus. Rockresses are still commonly grown in space because of their immense research value. Later on, in the 90s, the Mir Space Station had a special SVET-2 Space Greenhouse model designed for plant cultivation. Finally, in 1997 scientists achieved the first space seed-to-seed growth.

Fresh vegetables on the ISS

Plant research truly began to bloom on the International Space Station. The Vegetable Production System (a.k.a Veggie) helps scientists study the long-term effects of microgravity on plants. It is a full-blown space garden, and it brings many benefits to residing scientists. Fresh produce from the garden brings scientists essential microelements and vitamins, helping them stay in good health and enhancing morale on the station. Without gravity, plants navigate their growth using the light provided in the module. It also contains a special “pillow” filled with fertilizer and a clay-like substance, which helps distribute water across the plant.

plants in space
Growing plants in space | Test crops on the ISS
Image Courtesy: NASA

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Advanced plant habitat

An enhanced module called Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) needs way m0re care from the crew than Veggie. It is packed with technology that monitors plants’ growth and needs. When the crop is ready, scientists send samples back to Earth, where researchers begin experiments. Studying crops from APH will give scientists a deep insight into the effects of the space environment on plants. Furthermore, scientists’ ambitions don’t end there.

plants in space
Experiments with growing plants in space (aboard the ISS)
Image Courtesy: NASA

NASA SpaceX Crew-1 mission managed to grow Pak Choi for 64 days, making it the longest-grown leafy plant in history. The mission commander also used a small paintbrush to pollinate the flowers, a new solution proposed by Kennedy Space Center space crop production scientist Matt Raymon. “After he [mission commander] used the paintbrush, we saw a high seed production rate,” Raymon commented. Understanding how pollination works is important for growing fruits in microgravity. In June 2021, the SpaceX CSR-22 launched, carrying pepper seeds that will grow in the APH.

Plants on the Moon and future perspectives

Growing plants in space outside space stations also became a reality in 2019, when a Chinese mission delivered seeds and insects eggs to the Moon to see if they could grow together. Cotton seeds sprouted, becoming the first plants to sprout on another solar system body. Unfortunately, they died after a couple of days. Establishing a system to grow plants on other solar system bodies will be essential for space colonization, but that’s still in the future. Right now, scientists have more and more successes with growing plants in habitats designed for space stations.

plants in space
A visualization of growing plants on Mars
Image Courtesy: EOS

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