In December 2015, as we were waiting for Tim Peake to launch to the ISS and start his Principia mission, I talked about Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space. In that blog post, I quoted David M. Harland, from his book The Mir Space Station: A Precursor to Space Colonization:
“Several biological experiments were carried out, including Vazon to cultivate ginseng, onion and chlorella. Vita to study the growth of cells producing luciferase (a biologically active albumen), and Seeds, which simply required that a bag of tomato seeds be left in the airlock during the handover so that genetic irregularities resulting from their exposure to ambient radiation could be studied when they were planted on their return to Earth.”
Six months later, the blog post received a comment from a man who said that he owned a packet of pansy seeds that had been in space with Helen Sharman. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it, but it nagged at me, and I have been investigating.
And it turns out that David M. Harland got this fact wrong (although I think it’s a good book generally, and he is a well-respected space historian).
“A bag of 250,000 pansy seeds was placed in the Kvant 2 EVA airlock, a compartment not as protected from cosmic radiation as other Mir compartments. Sharman also contacted nine British schools by radio and conducted high-temperature superconductor experiments with the Elektropograph-7K device.”from Mir Hardware Heritage, by David S. F. Portree
(I have seen some references to it being 125,000 seeds stashed on board, which I think is the correct figure. I think there were 250,000 seeds in the experiment in total, split into two batches – one that flew in space, and a control group that didn’t.)
In February 1995, Orbit, the Journal of the Astro Space Stamp Society, produced a special commemorative issue celebrating the first Briton in space. It states that the seeds were “new type Pansy seeds”, and that once they had been returned to Earth “they were distributed in packets of 25 to schools all over Britain”, with each school also receiving a batch of control seeds, to compare whether exposure to space affected the growth of the seeds.
It contains a reproduction of a pamphlet produced by Suttons Seeds signed by Helen Sharman. The pamphlet says that the seeds were “one of Suttons New Introductions for 1992”, Pansy ‘Padparadja’, and that the project was part of a ‘Space School’ based at Brunel University in Middlesex.
The pamphlet also states that thousands of schools will be entering the results of their seedy experiment into a “central database, helping scientists to learn more about growing plants in space.” Unfortunately, I can find no record of the experiment results.
Pansy ‘Padparadja’ was a trendy orange-coloured variety, named after an orange jewel from Sri Lanka. Still, it seems to be a little out-of-fashion at the moment, as while it is possible to buy seeds, they’re not included in most of the mainstream seed catalogues.
Project Juno was supposed to be a commercially-funded collaboration between UK business and the Soviet space program. However, it never found favour with British companies, failed to reach its fundraising target and had to be bailed out by the Russians. (Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was adamant it wasn’t funding human space missions.) One company that did stump up some cash was Interflora, for whom Helen filmed a commercial in space. She placed the first (and last?) Interflora order from outer space and sent a bunch of flowers to her mum.
A stroll through the British Newspaper archive unearths a few more details. On Tuesday 26 November 1991, the Liverpool Echo published a somewhat bizarre story about a missing briefcase, containing pansy seeds from outer space. Mr Andrew Swanston was on his way to give a talk to the North-West branch of the Aerophilatelic Association and was carrying with him “all kinds of material, including letters and signed photographs from Miss Sharman”, as well as his precious pansy seeds. He said his intention was to plant a few of the seeds but to save the rest for posterity. Sadly, he accidentally left his briefcase on the car roof, and of course, it wasn’t there when he reached his destination. I wonder whether he ever got it back?
On Saturday 22 February 1992, the Newcastle Journal had a story entitled To boldly grow where no pansy… which has a quote from a Suttons Seeds representative Amanda Harris:
“We chose pansies because they are uniform and easy to grow. It would be wonderful if the pansies grew completely differently. A striped or tartan pansy would be quite good fun,” said Amanda, with suitable gravity.
The article goes on to say that originally it was tomatoes that were due to be sent into space, but that “there were complications because they were classed as food.”
From Wednesday 26 February 1992, the Harefield Gazette has a picture of two children from Bourne Primary School in Ruislip holding their space seedlings. Science coordinator Janey Morrison is quoted as saying “The children were excited because the space seeds started to grow first though now the earth ones have caught up.” The children were due to continue monitoring the progress of the plants, and “measuring the number of leaves”.
In 2011, Women of the Sky interviewed Helen Sharman about her experience in space. Of the Seeds experiment, she said:
“Most of my experiments were for the Soviet Space Agency but I was able to do a few activities for Britain. One was to take some pansy seeds into space with me, to store them on the space station and to bring them back to Earth.
The seeds, along with controls, were distributed to British schools for children to grow them to investigate what effects, if any, space travel had had on the seeds.
The result was that there was a small but significant difference in the average number of leaves on the plants; the space seeds grew with fewer leaves than the Earth seeds. I was also able to talk by radio to school children.”
Those school children are all grown up now. Surely some must remember their space seeds? I’d be fascinated to hear from people who took part in the experiment!