One of the nerdy things I enjoy doing in my spare time is researching the first seeds to have made it into space. This is what I have found so far:
According to an article originally published in The Conversation, which references a factsheet from White Sands military base, seeds were the first space travellers. Maize seeds were launched into space on a V-2 rocket in 1946, to see how they would be affected by cosmic radiation. However, the article incorrectly credits NASA with the launch; NASA wasn’t founded until 1958, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 kicked off the space race.
In 1965, Ed White became the first American to leave his spacecraft and perform an EVA (‘space walk’). He carried carried mustard seeds in his spacesuit pocket, a reference to the New Testament’s description of Jesus using mustard seeds as a model of the growth of the Kingdom of God, from an extremely tiny seed to the largest of all garden plants. They were an example of the tiny amount of faith needed to accomplish much.
In 1969, Newton apple seeds from The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale flew on the famous Apollo 10 mission. Apollo 10 was a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Moon landing mission, during which the crew tested all of the manoeuvres that would be needed, doing everything but land on the Moon.
(Apple pips from Newton’s tree also went into space in 2016, to coincide with Tim Peake’s Principia mission. They were harvested by the National Trust, and dried and packed at the Millennium Seed Bank. Following their trip into space they germinated, and (as of last year) had grown into healthy saplings.)
In 1971, the Apollo 14 mission carried tree seeds into space. Astronaut Stuart Roosa had been a smoke jumper with the U.S. Forest Service (I guess once you’ve parachuted into forest fire zones, going into space is a piece of cake!), and the chief of the Forest Service, Ed Cliff, asked him to take tree seeds into space. He packed hundreds of seeds from redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir and sweet gum trees into his personal travel kit, orbited the moon 34 times.
After their flight (and a bit of a container mishap), the seeds were given back to the Forest Service, who grew them. These seeds became the famous Moon Trees. They’re still thriving, although the records of their locations are patchy. This may well not be the complete list of early space-going seeds, so I will keep looking. They’re small and lightweight, and so are ideal candidates for space experiments.
As space exploration has continued, there have been lots of seedy experiments, some of which have been designed by school kids. There have even been examples of commercial companies sending seeds into space; some for relatively sensible purposes, others for PR!
Keen armchair astroethnobotanists should note that hemp seeds (Cannabis sativa) were sent into space in April, in an experiment to investigate whether microgravity will have any effect on their medicinal qualities 🙂