January 16, 2016
Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly shared photographs of a blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station. Kelly wrote, "Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower #YearInSpace"
This flowering crop experiment began on Nov. 16, 2015, when NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the Veggie system and its rooting "pillows" containing zinnia seeds. The challenging process of growing the zinnias provided an exceptional opportunity for scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they’ll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening. In late December, Kelly found that the plants "weren't looking too good," and told the ground team, “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”
The Veggie team on Earth created what was dubbed “The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener,” and gave basic guidelines for care while putting judgment capabilities into the hands of the astronaut who had the plants right in front of him. Rather than pages and pages of detailed procedures that most science operations follow, the care guide was a one-page, streamlined resource to support Kelly as an autonomous gardener. Soon, the flowers were on the rebound, and on Jan. 12, pictures showed the first peeks of petals beginning to sprout on a few buds.
(Photo via NASA)
He landed with a bump in the mid-morning sun, the vast Kazakh steppe his first contact with Earth after a year in space devoted to medical tests, commanding the International Space Station and chasing his crew around in a gorilla suit.
Australia from space: beautiful and bizarre images taken by ISS astronaut
Nasa’s Scott Kelly gave a thumbs-up as ground crew carried him and his fellow travellers, the Russians Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov, from the Soyuz capsule and gently lowered them into chairs where they warmed themselves beneath thick, dark blankets.
“The air feels great out here,” Kelly said to the men in big coats and hats who had come to his assistance. “I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up.”
The touchdown, at 10.26am local time on Wednesday, wrapped up a 340-day mission for Kelly, who enters the record books as the first US astronaut to spend so long in space. No-one has flown a longer mission than Kelly and Kornienko in more than 20 years. It was 1995 when Valeri Polyakov spent 437 days aboard Mir and so set the all-time record.
Officially named the One Year Mission, Kelly’s mammoth stint on the space station had a clear and concrete purpose. Having set its sights on sending humans to Mars, Nasa must now work out how to get them there safely. Rocket science is one thing. Keeping humans fit and well while weightless, exposed to radiation and in isolation for months on end, is another.
Since he blasted off on 28 March 2015, Kelly has become more orbiting phenomenon than astronaut. His photographs of landscapes, the red aurora, the Milky Way, and a good number of the 5,000 sunrises he witnessed from space, drew nearly a million Twitter followers. But snapshots from space are a familiar feast today. What made Kelly stand out were his antics.
“One small bite for man, one giant leap for #NASAVEGGIE,” said one tweet after he nurtured, and then ate some lettuce in space. The venture into orbital farming was only eclipsed by his struggle to get sunflower-like zinnias to grow in zero gravity. The outlook did not look good in December when he shared a picture of limp green sprigs. “Our plants aren’t looking too good. Would be a problem on Mars. I’m going to have to channel my inner Mark Watney,” he tweeted, a reference to Matt Damon’s ingenious astronaut-botanist in The Martian, who ekes out his potato rations by growing more in human poo.
And then there was the bizarre. Last month, a video showed Kelly clambering out of a large bag in a gorilla suit and chasing British astronaut Tim Peake around the space station. The 20 seconds of footage was set to the Benny Hill theme tune. Every time Kelly appeared, he was apparently having fun.
Back on terra firma, and due to arrive in Houston late on Wednesday night, Kelly now faces a month of formal rehabilitation to restore strength to his muscles, calcium to his bones, and a sense of balance to his body.
“I expect he will be in good shape,” John Charles, chief scientist on Nasa’s human research program, told the Guardian. Footage of Kelly on landing shows him moving his head left and right, and up and down. That is a sign, says Charles, that Kelly is not experiencing too much “motion sensitivity” - a disorientating feeling that comes from the sudden loss of weightlessness.
“When you get back, walking in a straight line is a challenge, and turning a corner is a severe challenge, for the first hours and even few days after landing,” said Charles. The astronauts’ families are assigned as spotters, to help the returned spacefarers to walk, sit and stand, and to prevent them falling over when they are in dark rooms. “Even laying on a bed at night can be disorientating,” said Charles. The sense of balance comes back in time, but some habits can take longer to break. It is not unknown for astronauts to go for a shave at home and let go of their shaving foam, expecting it to float around in front of them.
Kelly exercised daily in space to minimise the loss of muscle and bone that comes with weightlessness. But he will still have lost weight, through a redistribution of fluids around the body. “he’ll feel pretty good in a week, or even a few days, but he won’t be all the way back at that time,” said Charles.
“The work Scott has done on the space station will give us confidence that we are on the right path for sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. That is the purpose of the one year mission.”