Growing Pains

It’s the one area of space science in which you get to eat the experiment.

Air & Space Magazine

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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.

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.

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