Scott Kelly posted a lovely little close-up of a bright orange flower to his Twitter feed on Saturday. This would be a perfectly normal and unremarkable activity for just about anyone else on Twitter. But Kelly is a NASA astronaut up on the International Space Station, and the photo he shared shows the first flower ever grown in space.
The chipper-looking bloom is a zinnia, a plant related to sunflowers and daisies. It can come in many colors, but the one on the space station is bright orange with a tinge of yellow. A small garden of the plants is growing in the VEG-01 module, an experiment focused on raising edible and ornamental plants in space.
The ultimate goal of the VEG-01 (known more popularly as just "Veggie") is to sort out how astronauts could grow food on long-range missions, such as a mission to Mars. The ISS gets regular resupply runs from Earth, but adventurers on the way to far-off areas of the solar system won't have that luxury.
The plants have had some challenges when it comes to growing up in space. Some of the leaves curled, an indication of stress. Kelly also noticed mold growing on the leaves and had to prune off the damage. The astronauts turned a fan on high to help dry out the growing module, which had become too humid inside. None of these obstacles stopped the first flower in space from blooming.
While the Veggie ground team had created a detailed plan for caring for the zinnias, they ended up handing over much of the decision-making duties to Kelly, who could keep a closer eye on the plants and choose when to water them. He became what NASA describes as an "autonomous gardener." "Kelly's willingness to jump in and care for the plants independent of the ground support team was key," NASA notes.
The zinnia is just one step in a long-term plan for gardening in space. NASA reports that future experiments will involve Chinese cabbage, red romaine lettuce (a crop already successfully grown and eaten on the ISS) and eventually dwarf tomato plants. Some day, astronauts may have access to an entire salad bar in space.