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 3 of 5)
As flight engineer of the Salyut 7’s first crew, Valentin Lebedev was in charge of the plant experiments. Inside Oasis, the roots of pea plants grew wildly while their leaves suffered from brown and white molds. Soon the plants died. Svetoblok, yet another greenhouse module, produced a stunted tomato plant. But inside a Fiton module that used anti-bacterial filters to keep the air pure, a breakthrough was emerging.
Since launch, Lebedev had mostly ignored Fiton because its watering system worked automatically and nothing seemed to grow. But in July, after months of inactivity, tiny Arabidopsis stems wove their way out of the artificial soil. They looked more like loose floating jumbles of thin twine than plants. On August 4, pods appeared on the plants. Less than two weeks later, Lebedev announced with glee, “Hurrah! A pod has burst: It spilt seeds!” It was the first time seeds had developed in space.
To Nechitailo, the seeds were worth more than gold. “Keep them safe,” she told him anxiously. “We need them all alive.” Lebedev harvested roughly 200 space-grown Arabidopsis seeds. Once back on Earth, they quickly germinated and produced healthy plants. After more than a decade of effort, the Russians had finally proven that plant life could reproduce in space, and that future space explorers could grow their own food. Space didn’t have to be a barren and lifeless place.
Despite this triumph—which should have propelled the Soviet space biology program to even greater achievements—a series of accidents and political changes stopped the program in its tracks. Most of Lebedev’s Arabidopsis seeds were lost in an attempt to launch them back to Salyut 7 for further experiments. When Soyuz T-8 failed to dock with the space station, the crew capsule separated to return to Earth, and the orbital module in which the seeds were stowed was abandoned to burn up in the atmosphere as usual. Then, in February 1985, Salyut 7’s batteries drained, leaving the unmanned station frozen and dying. A rescue crew revived the station, but Soviet botanists decided to concentrate their energies on Mir, which launched in 1986.
However, Communist party general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Soviet Union had extended to its space program as well. On board the new space station, pure scientific research was de-emphasized, replaced by a focus on commercial profit. Mir’s only greenhouse, a Bulgarian-Russian unit dubbed Svet, had been included mostly for political purposes and was far less advanced than earlier Russian greenhouses.
“Technologically it was similar to Oasis, 20 years before,” says Nechitailo. “We couldn’t learn anything from it.” Except for one failed attempt to grow wheat in 1991, the effort by Nechitailo and her partners at Energia and IMBP to grow plants in space was over, leaving unanswered the question of whether seeds produced in space could grow and produce viable second-generation seeds in orbit.
By the time NASA and the Russian space agency began a partnership in 1996, the Soviet Union had disintegrated and Nechitailo, who was closely tied to the Soviet power structure, had been forced out of the agency’s plant research programs. NASA brought new ideas and new equipment to Mir, and infused the program with a large amount of cash.
The first great success came with American Michael Foale’s stay on Mir in 1997. In May of that year, Foale planted 52 seeds of Brassica rapa—better known as mizuna, a wild plant that produces tasty light-green leaves that can be cooked, mixed in salads, or simply plucked off and eaten. Like Arabidopsis, its life cycle is short; it flowers only 14 days after being sown. It is also resistant to ethylene, a gaseous plant hormone that tended to linger in Mir’s atmosphere and had been blamed for ruining a past wheat-growing experiment. Foale’s plan was to coax two generations of seeds from the mizuna seeds.