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Astronauts grow first flower in space

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted an image Saturday of the first flower ever grown in space: an orange zinnia.

The zinnia, an edible flowering plant, was planted aboard the International Space Station's Veggie chamber last November to help "provide precursory information about other flowering plants that could be grown in space," according to NASA's blog.

A little more than two weeks into the growth period, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren noted that the plants were suffering from high humidity and low air flow. However, efforts to fix the problem were postponed due to an unplanned space walk in mid-December.

After the spacewalk, astronauts placed fans on "high" in the Veggie chamber to dry out the leaves. But it was too late: tissue in the leaves of some of the zinnias started to die and mold started to grow.

Astronaut Scott Kelly took on the role of autonomous gardener after Lindgren returned to Earth on Dec. 18. Kelly cut away the moldy plant tissue, sanitized the plant surfaces with cleaning wipes and continued to blast the fans on high speed to keep the Veggie chamber dry.

But on Christmas Eve, Kelly reported a new problem to the ground support team: the fans were drying out the crop.

Channeling his inner Mark Watney - Matt Damon's character in "The Martian" - Kelly told the ground support team that he believed the plants needed more water, even though the next scheduled watering was not until December 27.

He tweeted a photo of the plants in distress:

According to NASA's mission page, the Veggie team created "The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener," which gives basic guidelines for plant care, but leaves all judgment calls up to the astronaut who is physically working with the plants. "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," the mission page states.

The trials and tribulations with growing the zinnias provided a number of learning opportunities for scientists back on Earth. "The unexpected turns experienced during this Veggie run have actually offered bountiful opportunities for new learning and better understanding of one of the critical components to future journeys to Mars," the mission page reports.

Shortly after Christmas, two of the troubled plants died off. They were clipped and stowed in the minus eighty degree laboratory freezer (MELFI) to be returned to Earth and studied.

On January 8, Kelly tweeted his progress with the remaining zinnias:

And the flowers are thriving.