It's the one area of space science in which you get to eat the experiment.
- By Robert Zimmerman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
(Page 2 of 5)
Like Patsayev and Volkov, crew members aboard Salyut 6 cared for the plants like doting fathers. One cosmonaut, Vladimir Kovalenok, used what he called the “simple peasant’s way” to help the onions grow, carefully trimming rotting stalks as they poked out of the Vazon’s top. To his delight, the trimming helped the healthy stalks grow faster. Still, the onions died prematurely from thirst—without gravity, even proximity isn’t enough to enable roots to absorb water.
Though their greenhouse designs were clever, Soviet botanists were hampered by government secrecy, which forbade them from publishing detailed scientific papers. Scientists, including Galina Nechitailo, a space botanist from Ukraine who was a major player in Energia’s plant research program, weren’t allowed to reveal their research. “It was a totally secret program,” Nechitailo says. “I couldn’t move about. I was forbidden to go anywhere.”
Nechitailo routinely gave advice and instructions to Salyut 6’s cosmonauts in an effort to improve the plants’ chances. In one conversation, Kovalenok’s crewmate Alexander Ivanchenkov repeatedly hinted to Nechitailo that he couldn’t possibly use all the onion bulbs on board for their plant experiments. Why did they need so many? How should he store them? Did she plan some other use for them? Nechitailo took the hint. “Keep the four best onions for the experiment and use the rest as you like,” she said. Ivanchenkov gleefully responded, “Thanks, I’ve been probing for that,” and ate the extras.
He would not be the only cosmonaut to take advantage of Salyut 6’s plant experiments. Two years later, as he prepared for a second extended stay, Ryumin decided to smuggle aboard a cucumber from his launch-day breakfast. During the mission’s first space telecast, fellow cosmonaut Leonid Popov panned his camera to one of the station’s greenhouses. Among the dead stalks and seeds left over from the last crew eight months earlier sat one full-sized cucumber. Ryumin innocently explained that it must have grown during the cosmonauts’ time away. Everyone in mission control was speechless. After peppering the men with questions, scientists on the ground concluded that it was a joke and the cucumber was plastic. “We should have taken a bite while we were on television!” Ryumin thought afterward.
Despite the cosmonauts’ humor, space gardening remained difficult, though Ryumin proved to have quite a green thumb. He cultivated onions, peas, radishes, lettuce, wheat, garlic, cucumbers, parsley, and dill from ready-grown sprouts that were delivered to the station by space freighters, and he turned the space station into a veritable jungle by growing them in empty film cassettes, equipment casings, and food containers hung everywhere on the station’s walls. But his and Lyakov’s attempts to get seeds to reproduce proved futile. Despite the best efforts of several crews, most of Salyut 6’s seeds grew poorly or died. Like the flax plants aboard the first Salyut, those that managed to sprout were tiny and stunted. Later, Ryumin would write that it seemed as if the seedlings petered out once they’d used up all the nutrition contained in the seeds themselves.
Perhaps the cosmonauts should have expected as much; over eons, the plants they were testing had evolved physiologies dependent on a terrestrial environment that was yet to be replicated well in space. On Earth, plants need lots of sunlight and water, and vast areas of land to thrive, but spacecraft have little spare power or room, and their limited environmental control systems aren’t tuned to deal with vegetation; in fact, botanists would later discover that onboard atmospheres are often toxic to plants.
Ryumin and Popov’s failure was not in vain. The greenhouses were revised again, and on the next long-term mission aboard Salyut 6, Vladimir Kovalynok and Viktor Savinykh got an Arabidopsis plant in the Fiton greenhouse to bud, the first time seed heads (the pods in which seeds normally grow) had ever appeared in space. Though the heads were sterile and seedless, Ryumin, now working in mission control, wondered whether the latest Fiton design, which kept the plant’s atmosphere separate from the station’s, had accounted for the success.
His guess was correct. Salyut 6’s atmosphere recycling equipment was unable to purify the air thoroughly enough for plants to prosper. On this and previous missions, unexpected trace gases released by the station’s equipment, food, and human crew had stifled plants exposed to the crew cabin. Consequently, the Soviets put a new suite of greenhouses on their next space station, Salyut 7, which launched in 1982.