The empty black vacuum occasionally replete in the popular imagination with evil alien life forms became a little bit brighter on Sunday after Scott Kelly, a U.S. astronaut aboard the International Space Station, tweeted an image of the first flower ever grown in space.
The photograph immediately blossomed into a full viral hit, with more than 30,000 retweets and 38,000 likes since Kelly posted the image. According to a NASA blog post, the flower, a zinnia, was not chosen to wow people with its beauty or rack up retweets, but as part of a larger experiment on the potential for vegetation in low-gravity environments. The team's ultimate objective is to grow vegetables.
"I think we have gained a lot from this," NASA scientist Gioia Massa, who worked on the project, said in the blog post. "We are learning both more about plants and fluids and also how better to operate between ground and station. Regardless of final flowering outcome we will have gained a lot."
Kelly also posted some additional action shots of the historic flower, which rightfully seemed to relish the limelight. The astronaut's post did not include a #nofilter tag so there's no telling whether he went "Lo-Fi" to account for the flower's stunning vibrance. But if he didn't, well, wow.
Mastering interstellar horticulture is a critical enterprise as humankind looks to longer and more complicated spaceflight in the future. While Matt Damon's potato crop in The Martian may have looked easy, growing food in alien environments is more challenging than Damon made it seem. According to NASA, a crop of romaine lettuce was lost due to "drought stress," Before it bloomed, Kelly's zinnia also had difficulty retaining water and even sprouted some mold.
While nobody expects to be eating zinnias, the successful bloom indicates promise for future missions. And — if you'll pardon the dad joke — we've just made one giant leaf for mankind.