Today, NASA revealed pictures of a flower grown in space. It is a triumph not only in space travel and planetary science, but also in behavioral studies and sociology. The photographs accompany an article in which NASA reports that the colorful plant, a blooming zinnia flower, plays an important role in their research into the effects of psychological stimuli on quality of life in space.
You might not have thought about it – I know I haven’t – but there’s not much out there. Imagine for a moment that you are an astronaut. You see our beautiful planet, proudly beaming back at you from hundreds of thousands of miles away. You hear the steady hum of machines that keep Earth’s gravity from dragging you down to certain, fiery death. But living aboard a space station doesn’t really offer you more than that. You won’t be cold. You won’t be hot. There’s no rain and no weather, and your shower is nothing more than a wet wipe. Sure, you can float around, but even a life without gravity gets dull after awhile.
In other words: space is boring.
Now before all you Trekkies get mad and start screaming at the screen, let me remind you that I’m only talking about stimulation here, or rather the complete lack thereof. Scientists have observed that sheer monotony is one of the biggest causes of stress, and creates feelings of isolation, loneliness, and even depression. Among astronauts, these feelings are generally repressed for the good of the mission: by maintaining a persona of calmness and sanity, they also maintain the calmness and sanity of their fellow crew. But when a person is not mentally well it can lead to errors, and in space, errors are often fatal. In this instance, not only is a nice and quiet environment not so nice, it can actually be deadly.
So what can a band of space pirates do to break the monotony? It’s not like they can easily go out for a stroll, right? Well, that’s where the plants come in. Believe it or not, gardening is an excellent countermeasure that stimulates many different senses. The powerful colors of the blossoms entertain the eyes, and sometimes the astronauts grow vegetables, which not only stimulate the pallet, but also gives the grower a sense of accomplishment. To see new life germinate, to nourish it and watch it grow with each day, it fosters positive emotions, and indeed, bolsters the astronauts’ mental well-being.
To quote astronaut Don Pettit: “Every morning I would get up and look at the plants for about ten to fifteen minutes. It was a moment of quiet time.”