Space Just Got a Lot More Beautiful…

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The International Space Station (ISS) just got one step closer to having a full-on space garden — after months of dedicated, low-gravity gardening, astronauts have seen their on-board zinnia flowers finally bloom!

NASA astronaut and ISS crew commander Scott Kelly, record-holder for most consecutive and cumulative days in space, tweeted the first photos of the groundbreaking zinnias:

Okay, so maybe Kelly's enthusiasm got the better of him — the zinnias aren't technically the “first ever” flowers grown in space, as some news outlets were quick to point out — but the ISS zinnias are still a big deal.

These beautiful blooms are part of NASA's “Veggie” program, which seeks to one day provide a continuous supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for space station crews, and make life in microgravity more habitable for long-term missions. Having plantlife on board may have psychological benefits too, by giving astronauts a more stimulating environment that reminds them of home — or at least that's the hope.

In August 2015, the crew had their first taste of the Veggie space garden when the successfully cultivated — and munched on — red romaine lettuce grown on the ISS.

Both the lettuce and flowers were grown using a “deployable plant growth system” developed by ORBITEC, which feeds water and nutrients to “rooting pillows” that contain the seeds, and uses LED lights to stimulate growth.

While zinnias may be one of the easiest flowers to grow on earth, outer space isn't nearly as inviting to these adorable annuals. According to NASA scientist Gioia Massa, who works on the Veggie program from the Kennedy Space Center, the zinnia success is a huge step up from last year's lettuce. “Growing a flowering crop is more challenging than growing a vegetative crop,” Massa said. “Lighting and other environmental parameters are more critical.”

Using what they learned from the zinnias, NASA hopes to cultivate space tomatoes in 2017. If the Veggie program continues its record of success, Massa foresees a more substantial food production system — one that will give astronauts a nutritious, delicious, and sustainable source of food during the future voyage to Mars.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.