Zinnias, the Sustainable Space Gardening Innovation

By Allyana Belen,
Domestic News Writer

The blossoming of an orange zinnia in space shines light on the ever-growing possibilities of the International Space Station’s ability to create a sustainable food supply for their future trip to Mars.

While the blooming of a zinnia on a fine spring morning inspires little awe, its ability grow and flourish during winter away from earth’s surface has gathered worldwide admiration, and rightfully so.

According to The Guardian, in order to grow a garden in space, one has to surmount the obstacles of high radiation levels, temperature extremes, and unpredictable humidity.

In fact, it was this humidity which threatened to doom this project. Back in December of 2015, mold overtook a set of four plants. Not to be disheartened, the astronauts of ISS forged on.

To an outsider, growing flowers seems so far from the goal of the ISS to create a lasting food bank in space, one might question why the ISS didn’t focus their energies more on vegetables and fruits.

Professor Dhiren Kataria of the College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory provides a scientific answer to this inquiry in commentary provided to The Guardian.
He states, “It’s quite significant that we can do this now. If we can grow flowers, it helps in terms of the pollination process. And if you want a sustainable environment, you need cross-pollination.”

In regards to the future of this VEG-01 project, the growth of the zinnia plays an important role of bridging the projects past success with what the astronauts hope to be future success.

The astronauts of the ISS already had the extraordinary pleasure of munching on lettuce grown within their facility in space and with the zinnia success, they hope that it will not be long before they are tasting freshly grown tomatoes.

As documented by The Telegraph, ISS manager, Trent Smith explains how the blossoming of a zinnia in space bodes well for future tomato growth.

He states, “The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce. It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant.”

On the other hand, the crew of the ISS and NASA also hope that this gardening project will improve their colleagues’ mental health status.

Far from the action-packed portrayals of astronauts in film (i.e. Gravity, Interstellar), the work of astronauts often takes places is a slow-paced, small environment for long periods of time without any contact with anything living.

A leader of the NASA Human Research Program, Alexandra Whitmire discusses this additional benefit of the space garden initiative, stating that three is no doubt as to the benefits that this innovation could potentially provide to astronauts, as these plants would be able to surviving during the intense conditions that the astronauts, themselves, must face.

Thus, the future of space gardening has blossomed in the form of an orange zinnia whose lasting beauty, preserved forever on online photographic evidence, traces out the path for the future of  astronauts’ sustainable food supply as well as the potential preservation of their mental health.
 

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, January 26th print edition.

Contact Allyana at
mariaallyana.belen@student.shu.edu

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