Space tomatoes

In 1984 NASA put into orbit a schoolbus-sized vehicle called the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), which exposed various materials to space for six years.

NASA should have asked Heinz to sponsor it, because not only were there 57 kinds of materials on board, one of those materials was 12.5 million tomato seeds.

Those seeds were retrieved with LDEF on January 12, 1990, and immediately sent out to schools in all 50 states and 34 other countries as part of a huge project called the Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students — SEEDS, for short. (Darn clever, those NASA acronymists.)

More than 3.3 million students and 64,000 teachers took part in SEEDS, the goals of which were to compare the growth and development of space-exposed seeds with Earth-bound seeds — and, more importantly, to involve budding scientists in a real experiment with unknown results, fraught with all the hazards of real-world experimenting.

What kind of hazards? Well, a child in Ontario wrote: “Dear NASA: Hi, my name is Matt. I am in Grade 2. I really enjoy growing my plants. Here are my results. My Earth seed did not grow. My space seed grew but it fell off my desk. It died.”

Other seedlings survived the classroom and were transplanted to the garden, only to meet one of the undignified fates their mundane cousins constantly face: hailstorms, late frosts, heat, thunderstorms, mice, moles, worms and clumsy four-year-olds –specifically, one in Portland, Oregon, whose “Michael Jordan three-point shot” rebounded onto her stepbrother’s plants. (Miraculously, the plants survived and produced a tomato that won the Youth Division Vegetable Oddity Blue Ribbon at the Oregon State University Extension Seed Harvest Fair.)

In all, 8,000 reports, gathered by students from elementary through graduate school, were sent back to NASA. Many reports, naturally, were incomplete or contained errors; but as NASA points out, while that might affect their scientific validity, it doesn’t affect the goal of involving young people in science.

The useable results indicated that space-exposed seeds germinated slightly faster than Earth-based ones and had a faster initial growth rate for the first three or four weeks. After that the Earth-based seedlings caught up and there were no significant differences between the plants or their fruits.

One thing that didn’t happen was the germination of a monstrous poisonous mutant tomato plant, as a rather sensational article in the Los Angeles Times warned could happen. (Or, as NASA headlined its press release on the project: “Attack of the Killer Space Tomatoes? Not!”) Such a mutation is far more likely to occur on Earth, where billions of tomato plants are grown, exposed to many more mutagens than cosmic radiation, including pesticides, pollutants and the natural radiation emitted by everything from water to humans.

In fact, many participants made a point of mentioning how much they enjoyed eating the space-exposed fruit. Some claimed it was tastier, juicer and sweeter than Earthly tomatoes; others that it had a thicker skin and more seeds. One simply said, “Made enough Gazpacho for a week.”

However, tests of fruit acidity found no difference between space-exposed and Earth-based tomatoes. The space plants also performed normally in tests of geotropism, tissue culturing, seed weight and phototropism. Though no doubt many students were hoping for wildly mutated plants, in the end what the experiment showed was that seeds can survive in space for long periods of time with little or no change in the resulting plant, knowledge which could play an important role in food production aboard Space Station Freedom and future bases on the Moon and Mars.

It also showed that given the opportunity to do real science, young people respond with interest and imagination. As one parent in Boston put it, “Our children were eager NASA scientists, fascinated with the concept of space tomatoes, and rewarded not only by the satisfaction coming from the completion of an independent scientific search, but also by the realization of working on a national project with unknown results.”

You see? Science really can be fun and fascinating. In other words:

Attack of the killer space tomatoes? Not!

Science boring?


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