I was talking recently about the way different cultures put their own spin on space exploration, using the example of the UAE’s desire to grow palm trees on Mars. Their first step was to send some palm seeds to the International Space Station (ISS) for a germination test.

In May 2008, Space Shuttle Discovery delivered a set of native Australian seeds to the ISS for a similar experiment. Canadian-born astronaut Dr Gregory Chamitoff carried a package of seeds from The New South Wales Seedbank (now the Australian PlantBank).

The species sent into space were:

  • Actinotus helianthi, the Flannel flower
  • Waratah (Telopea spp)
  • Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis)
  • Acacia pycnantha, Golden Wattle, Australia’s national flower. 
Dr Chamitoff with Seedlings from Space
NASA astronaut Dr Gregory Chamitoff took seeds with him on the Discovery Mission STS-124 in May 2008. They endured 2800 orbits of the Earth and were subjected to microgravity and ionising radiation
Photo: Jaime Plaza

The seeds of the Golden Wattle are amongst the toughest in the world and can survive for more than 100 years. As quick-growing oxygen producers, the wattle could be a useful plant for colonising the Moon or Mars. And wattle seed is a nutritious food and has been a staple of the indigenous Australian diet for thousands of years. It’s now in high demand, with commercial growers struggling to keep up with demand.

The Wollemi Pine is a conservation success story, having gone from fewer than a hundred wild plants to being propagated and sold for cultivation all over the world. Sending its seeds into space was symbolic of this success.

The seeds were stored in microgravity conditions on the ISS for six months, orbiting the Earth more than 2,800 times. A duplicate set of seeds remained on Earth as a control group.

At the time, Botanic Gardens Trust Executive Director Dr Tim Entwisle said:

“Other seeds have been sent into space, mostly vegetables, but none from Australia. It’s hoped this small experiment will show how Australian seeds respond to microgravity and ionising radiation, perhaps demonstrating they are the toughest on Earth and in space.”

via CityHub Sydney

NASA had their eye on useful plants for future space colonies:

“As soon as we get back to the Moon and even before we reach Mars, we’re going to have to figure out how to recycle as much as we can and provide as much food as we can in space. From NASA’s perspective, we are interested in seeds that might be hardy enough to survive long-duration exposure to the space environment and then germinate in greenhouses in space or on other planets. Ultimately, this will be essential to support self-sustaining outposts or colonies in space with food and oxygen.”

Dr Chamitoff, via The Age
SpaceSeedlings 0001
Seeds taken to space and placed in tubestock
Photo: Simone Cottrell

When the seeds completed their mission and returned to Earth, they and the control group were put through rigorous germination tests. These showed that the space-faring seeds had not been adversely affected by their off-world experience.

“The news that the seeds have not been affected by their space travel is fantastic. With habitats under increasing threat, seed banking on Earth (and perhaps in space one day), will be part of an integrated conservation program for species threatened by extinction due to global warming or other sudden changes to their habitat. The experiment could lead to groundbreaking research by providing a preliminary evaluation of Space Station seed banking.”

Dr Tim Entwisle, via Seeds in Space
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Environment Minister Rob Stokes, “NASA astronaut Dr Gregory Chamitoff took seeds with him on the Discovery Mission STS-124 in May 2008. They endured 2800 orbits of the Earth and were subjected to microgravity and ionising radiation,” Mr Stokes said with Kim Ellis Executive Director RBGSDT
Photos © Simone Cottrell Royal Botanic Garden & Domain Trust

In 2014, some of resulting trees were planted out at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. And earlier this year, their story was told in a delightful episode of the garden’s podcast: Branching Out. In it, you can also hear from Dr Chamitoff about life in space and from biotechnologist Dr Yosephine Gumulya, who is researching ways to use microbes to mine minerals. 

“The Earth is big, it’s the biggest thing you’ve ever seen in your life, but it’s alone. You sense how vulnerable it is, and how important it is that – as the one species capable of destroying it – we protect it.”

Dr Chamitoff, via Seeds in Space