NASA is exploring how caring for plants and flowers may help improve feelings of isolation, loneliness and stress that can be a part of a long-duration mission in space.
In space, there is no scent of baking bread, no wind on your face, no sound of raindrops hitting the roof, no favourite kitten to curl up in your lap, NASA said.
Over time, being deprived of these common earthbound sense stimulations takes a toll. Having limited access to stimuli to the senses is identified as a significant risk, researchers said.
NASA’s Behavioural Health and Performance team has touted that gardening provides recreation and relaxation.
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the growth of zinnia plants on November 16, 2015, as part of an experiment in the Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE), a facility that will help scientists learn how to grow fresh produce on orbit for the agency’s journey to Mars.
The work with the zinnias was continued by Scott Kelly after Lindgren’s departure. They are using red, green, and blue LED lights 10 hours a day to stimulate growth of the plants.
The zinnias bloomed, Kelly announced with a tweet - “Yes, there are other life forms in space!”
The countermeasure to sensory monotony is sensory stimulation. Working with plants provides astronauts visual, tactile and olfactory stimulation, and eventually even salivary stimulation with fresh foods and variety.
“It was surprising to me how great soybean plants looked,” NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson wrote in one of her letters while she was aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
“I guess seeing something green for the first time in a month and a half had a real effect. I think it is interesting that my reaction was as dramatic as it was,” she wrote.
Another space gardener, NASA astronaut Don Pettit, conducted his own personal experiments with growing plants in space during Expedition 30/31.
“I grew three plants on my last mission. Space zucchini, and then he had his buddy space broccoli. And then there was space sunflower,” he said.
“Growing a flowering crop is more challenging than growing a vegetative crop such as lettuce. Lighting and other environmental parameters are more critical,” said Gioia Massa from NASA Kennedy Space Centre.