Christmas Kalanchoë offers a welcome range of colourful flowers in the home during Advent. It has travelled to us all the way from Madagascar. Are you aware that this plant has travelled all the way into space too?
You can understand why Kalanchoë was chosen to accompany astronauts into space. It is relatively easy to grow and carries a water supply in its succulent leaves. Soviet cosmonauts carried out scientific experiments in a little greenhouse called Oasis. An unplanned positive was that plants improved crew morale. The cosmonauts treated them like pets. When a Kalanchoë plant was sent up in 1971, it gained celebrity status by appearing in shot for all TV transmissions.
There was a serious scientific purpose in including plants in the manned space missions. Questions surround how mankind will survive in space in ever-longer, future missions. How will potential colonies feed themselves in orbit or based on the moon or planets? Crews need to recycle oxygen, find water and grow crops in zero or weak gravity.
Gravity and Water
The early experiments did not enjoy great success. Seedlings sprouted, but died. They withered once they had exhausted the nutrients available inside their seeds. Plants that continued growing were much smaller than their equivalents on Earth. Watering was a challenge. Zero gravity prevented the even distribution of water to roots. Gravity pulls water downwards on Earth. In space, watering resulted in both waterlogging and drought at the same time. Water could be close to roots but was not drawn up.
Decades passed. Greenhouses and watering systems were redesigned. Air quality improved. Years later, there was the first seed production success with Arabidopsis.
The ultimate aim is to make it possible for astronauts to feed themselves, no matter how far they may be from Earth. There is still a long way to go even for a modest, self-grown salad. Nonetheless, the space-travelling Kalanchoë will have played an important role on the road to that ambition.
References and Further Reading
- Simpson, Will (2017): Christmas Kalanchoe, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana. Culham Research Group. 19 December 2017.
- The Unscripted Mind (2010): How to Care for Christmas Kalanchoe. 29 May 2010.
- Zimmerman, Robert (2003): Growing Pains. Air & Space. September 2003.
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