Welcome to Gardeners Off World! The big news for Seed Guardians of the Galaxy this week is that the apple pips Tim Peake took to space during his Principia mission to the International Space Station (ISS) have been nurtured into saplings that have just been assigned their forever homes.

Four years ago, when Tim Peake blasted off on his space mission, he took with him seeds from Isaac Newton’s famous apple tree, the ‘Flower of Kent’ tree growing at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire.

After spending six months in space with Tim, the seeds returned to Earth. At Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, they spent 90 days at 5°C to simulate the winter cold needed to break dormancy. In May 2017, gardeners warmed the seeds to 15°C, and they germinated.

“These trees are truly unique. They come from the iconic apple tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to ponder the forces of gravitation and continues to inspire to this day.

Now, thanks to the careful nurturing at Kew, the apple pips that flew with me into space have grown into fine young trees which I hope will continue to inspire potential Isaac Newtons.”

Tim Peake, via UK Space Agency
Newton's apple sapling
One of the young apple trees grown from pips taken into space by Tim Peake
[Image credit: Anne Visscher © RBG Kew]

A competition to find homes for these unique saplings selected eight locations:

  • Eden Project (Cornwall)
  • Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre (Cheshire)
  • Brogdale Collections, Home of the National Fruit Collection (Kent)
  • Catalyst Science Discovery Centre (Cheshire)
  • The Royal Parks and National Physical Laboratory (Middx)
  • South Derbyshire District Council, Environmental Education Project at Rosliston Forestry Centre (Derbyshire)
  • Woolsthorpe Manor (Lincolnshire)
  • United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (Vienna)

I’m looking forward to being able to say hello to a space tree in a future visit to the Eden Project.

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Speaking of apples, Atlas Obscura has an article about photographer William Mullan, who is documenting unusual apples from around the world. It describes an apple variety that has “been to the Moon”:

“Another tiny green specimen Mullan shows me is christened “Bean,” after the astronaut Alan Bean, who took its seeds around the moon. Mullan has a soft spot for Bean, especially since the USDA website describes it as small, [acidic], and “worthless.””

Anne Ewbank, Atlas Obscura
Accession data for ‘Bean’ apple variety U.S. National Plant Germplasm System

But has it, really? According to the accession data, Bean is a cross between Golden Delicious and Flower of Kent. It was donated by Roger D. Way, of Cornell University in January 1986. Allegedly, Alan Bean took the seeds on his Apollo 12 flight. However, no further details are provided, and I can find no corroboration of this whatsoever. Still, Roger Way was an interesting character. A world-renowned pomologist and apple breeder, he died at the ripe old age of 100 last June. 

And sticking with things that may or may not be accurate, Brian Blessed has been claiming for several years now that he is a “fully trained cosmonaut”, having undergone 800 hours of training at Star City in Moscow. He says he is “first reserve for the International Space Station”, whatever that means, and that NASA wants to send him into space. You would think that, had he indeed completed astronaut training, there would be some evidence of it, but I can’t find any.

“These days my biggest love is space. I’m actually a fully-trained cosmonaut. I trained with NASA and at Space City in Moscow, testing prototype suits with lots of mountaineers and microbiologists on Reunion Island. To help the space programme, about seven years ago, we filmed on this volcanic island, simulating climbing the highest mountain on Mars, Olympus Mons. I believe I will go into space one day because I truly believe we are children of stardust and we can’t keep remaining in the cradle.”

Brian Blessed, in the Sunday Post in October 2019

Now it’s true that he took part in a simulated climb of Olympus Mons, on Réunion, an island in the Indian oceanIt was filmed as a docu-drama and broadcast on Channel 4 as Ascent of Mars Mountain in 2003. It doesn’t seem to be available anywhere now, in English, so it’s hard to tell whether it really ‘helped the space programme’ or not.

Will Brian Blessed make it into space? It seems unlikely, given that he’s 83 and fitted with a pacemaker. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is closer to that goal – he’s booked on Space X’s maiden tourist voyage to the Moon, which is planned for 2023. In 2018, he announced that he and “six to eight artists” would make the trip, which will fly around the Moon without landing. However, since then he has broken up with his girlfriend and announced a contentious contest to select a replacement female companion for his Moon voyage. (If you’re tempted to apply, I’m afraid you’ve missed the deadline.)

The 2017 Class of Astronauts and Texas Senators
The 2017 Class of Astronauts and Texas Senators

In more uplifting news, NASA has just graduated the 2017 class of astronaut candidates to fully-fledged astronauts. Now that they have their space wings, they may be assigned to Moon missions in the Artemis program, or ultimately end up being the first people to step onto the surface of Mars.

And when they do, will they grow their own houses? At NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the Myco-architecture off-planet project is investigating the possibility of growing useful structures from fungi. Fungal mycelia (their equivalent of roots) could be used for water filtration, biomining systems that extract minerals from wastewater, bioluminescent lighting and humidity regulation. As about 40% of carbon emissions on Earth coming from construction, these projects have potential for sustainable and affordable housing here as well.

Meals for Indian astronauts, developed by Mysuru-based Defence Food Research Laboratory.
[Image credit: ANI / Twitter]

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has announced the ‘Gaganyaan’ mission, which will send astronauts into space by the end of 2021. The astronauts (all of the selected candidates are men) will spend at least seven days in space, and the Defence Food Research Laboratory has developed a menu of about 30 dishes for them, including idli sambar, upma, veg rolls, egg rolls, moong dal halwa and vegetable pulav.

Providing food for a Mars mission is a bit trickier, as it needs to have an incredibly long shelf life so that astronauts have something safe to eat on the return trip. Scientists at Washington State University have developed a way to keep ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese edible for three years. 

“In taste panels conducted by the Army, the mac and cheese, recently tested after three years of storage, was deemed just as good as the previous version that was stored for nine months.”

Washington State University

NASA has been testing an engineering model of their new Moon rover – the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). VIPER is about the size of a golf cart and will roam around the Moon’s South Pole looking for water ice to sample. Engineers have been driving it around the Simulated Lunar Operations Laboratory, a large soil bin filled with lunar simulant that allows them to mimic the Moon’s terrain.

And finally, for this week, I can thoroughly recommend taking the time (27 minutes) to listen to Hey Sisters, Sew Sisters, a documentary broadcast on the BBC World Service. It records and celebrates the behind-the-seams work done by space seamstresses around the world. It’s not just spacesuits and gloves – they sewed the thermal protection system that was a critical part of the space shuttle!