“ON MY FIRST MISSION I WAS so focused on what I was doing—I didn’t want to screw anything up—that I didn’t look out the window during launch. We were in space for twenty minutes when I glanced out at something that caught my eye. ‘What the hell is that?’ I asked my shuttle commander. ‘That’s the sunrise,’ he said. As the sun came up over the horizon, I knew then and there I’d never see anything as beautiful as planet Earth again.”
In 2015, veteran fighter pilot and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on a yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to test the effects of long-term space exposure on human health. It was his fourth trip into the stars and his third expedition aboard the ISS, a multinational spacecraft that supports a crew of six, and that—traveling at nearly 18,000 miles an hour—orbits Earth every hour and a half.
“The ISS is very sanitized,” Kelly explains, “like a combination of a scientific laboratory, hospital, and basement depending on where you are—and you obviously can’t go outside.”
Left Image: Scott Kelly performing maintenance outside the orbital laboratory (NASA/Kjell Lindgren)
aN INTERSTELLAR flower experiment
As his record 340 consecutive days in the vacuum of space ticked by, one of the deepest absences he felt was that of the natural world. “In space you can’t experience the feeling of sun on your face, or wind, or rain, or putting your feet in grass,” he says. “It’s a sort of deprivation.” His workdays, scheduled by the ground team, were filled with station maintenance, cleaning and vacuuming sensitive equipment, exercising on a treadmill to combat bone loss, eating prepackaged food, and conducting hundreds of experiments.
One, called Veg-01, sought to grow fresh produce in microgravity—a necessary step toward sustaining long-duration expeditions to Mars. But in zero gravity, roots spread in all directions, soil floats away, and water beads into tight spheres, causing plants to die of drought. NASA scientists hoped to solve these issues with Veg-01’s “plant pillows,” tiny pouches of aerated soil containing seeds oriented toward LED bulbs and controlled-release fertilizer that wicked up syringe-injected water. After a rather successful crop of lettuce, Kelly and a crewmate activated zinnia plant pillows in hopes the more complex flowers might pave the way for future crops like tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries.
In December, when his crewmate returned to Earth, Kelly was left alone in the U.S. segment to care for the young plants.
“At first it was just another experiment,” he says. “I would take the photos required by the Ground, I would water them when I was supposed to. I would trim their dead leaves as part of the procedure.”
But then things started to go wrong. The zinnias’ leaves began to curl in distress. Their green edges wept droplets of water. Mold smothered the stems. Kelly sent photos to earthbound scientists, who analyzed and consulted among one another, then relayed detailed instructions on how to proceed. But the communication delay took nearly a week, leaving the little plants either waterlogged or parched—always pushed too far in one extreme or the other.
“I felt responsible,” Kelly explains, “It was frustrating growing another living thing up there and watching it struggle, not being able to take proper care of it.”
It didn’t help that in response to a photo he posted on social media, someone on Twitter quipped, “You’re no Mark Watney,” referring to the astronaut in the movie The Martian.
Kelly decided the solution was to become an autonomous gardener. Though it seemed like a simple decision, it represented a radical change in protocol for NASA, including a real fear that mold spores might infect Kelly if he touched them. But in the end, he got his way.
As he tended the plants with bare hands, he began to enjoy them. He still finds it difficult to describe the feeling of watching them come back from the brink of death. “Some of my space flowers are on the rebound!” he tweeted on January 8. Four days later, delicate petals peeked out from healthy, newly formed buds.
It was then that he started taking his botanical charges to the station’s seven-windowed Cupola to get some real sun. Soon, they were accompanying him to other ISS modules as a cheerful centerpiece for crew dinners. On Valentine’s Day, 2016, Kelly harvested his flowers, now bursting with brilliant red, orange, and yellow blossoms.
When his tenure aboard the ISS ended, he was given some of their dried seeds to plant in his own Houston garden upon retirement from NASA.
Kelly’s seventeen years as an astronaut give him a unique perspective: from observing our protective atmosphere as a fragile, delicate film, “almost like a contact lens,” to witnessing worsening pollution and deforestation around the globe. Now back on Earth, his fresh appreciation for flowers continues to grow.
“We are fortunate to have this planet,” he says. “and while we have challenges, we need—and can—work together to solve them.”
SCENES FROM THE ISS GARDEN
Left Image: Scott Kelly gardens aboard the ISS (NASA)
Left Image: Zinnias bloom aboard the ISS (NASA/Scott Kelly)
Scott Kelly is a former military fighter pilot and test pilot, engineer, retired astronaut, and retired U.S. Navy captain. A veteran of four spaceflights, Kelly commanded the International Space Station on three expeditions and was a member of the yearlong mission in 2015. He is the author of four books, including Endurance and Infinite Wonder. Visit www.scottkelly.com to learn more.