Seeds in Space History
Article Index
Seeds in Space History
Seeds in Space: LDEF
Seeds in Space II: In Space, On Earth, and Under Water
Seeds in Space III: Engineering Challenge
NASA’s Engineering Design Challenge
All Pages

NASA and Park Seed: 25 Years of Seeds in Space

Why would a 115-year-old want to go into outer space? For the same reason anybody else would—for the adventure, of course! In 1983, when the Park Seed Company was 115 years old, then corporate Vice President George Park found out that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was inviting schools and businesses to send small experiments into space. George proposed to put seeds on the Space Shuttle to see what affect space travel would have on the seeds. Park Seed’s then CEO, William John Park, saw that this concept had great potential for adventure and for learning, so he authorized George to pursue the idea. Growing from that first small project, NASA and Park Seed have been collaborating to learn how seeds respond to outer space conditions and, perhaps more importantly, to give students around the world an opportunity to perform hands-on science experiments with space-exposed seeds.

First Flight: the Get Away Special

Park Seed’s first space flight adventure was part of what NASA informally calls the "Get Away Special" program. This program, officially called the Small, Self-Contained Payloads program, made it possible for people and agencies outside of NASA to send experiments into space.

Park Seed’s Get Away Special was part of mission STS-6, which launched on April 4, 1983 aboard the Challenger space shuttle. The flight crew was made up of Paul J. Weittz, Commander; Karol J. Bobko, Pilot, and Donald H. Peterson and F. Story Musgrave, Mission Specialists. According to NASA’s shuttle archives, "the primary payload was the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-1(TDRS-1)." This flight also included the first-ever space walk of the Shuttle program. And the mission also included three Get Away Special payloads, one of which contained seeds from Park Seed Company.

According to the STS-6 press kit from NASA:

"The Park Seed Co. will send 11.3 kg (25 lb.) of common fruit and vegetable seeds into orbit. The 40 varieties—from potatoes to sweet corn—will be aboard the Shuttle, according to George Park Jr., assistant vice president.

"Park explained that 21st Century space stations and lunar bases will have to grow their own food from seeds in special, enclosed environments because food itself is too bulky to carry into space. As a result, the Park Co. believes there's a market in the future.

"The firm's primary objective is to determine how seeds must be packaged to withstand space flight. While nothing will be grown [during the Space Shuttle flight] in the seed experiment, seeds will be germinated once they are returned to earth. Two other identical groups of seeds left on the ground also will be studied for comparison. Some of the seeds are packaged in simple Dacrontm bags, and others are sealed airtight in plastic pouches. One seed batch will be packed along the perimeter of the metal Getaway Special canister that houses the experiment, leaving it exposed to severe temperatures and cosmic radiation. Another batch of seeds will be sealed in the center of the canister where there is greater shielding from the space environment.

"Researchers with the seed company plan to study the effects of the extreme temperature changes and radiation on the seeds. In some instances, extra doses of radiation may be beneficial to farmers, Park explained, who welcome a greater probability of seed mutations. With mutations come a genetic diversity that might mean hardier breeds of plants, he said. Extreme fluctuations in temperatures, on the other hand, he explained, might take their toll. Park believes this experiment will provide some ground rules for the future transport of food in space."

The seed was packaged in Dacrontm pouches and stored inside the Get Away Special aluminum container. Half of the seed was in an airtight, sealed area of the container; the other half was in an unsealed, vented section. It is believed that this is the first biological material ever sent from Earth in a vented container and thus exposed directly to outer space.

When the seed returned to Earth, it was delivered to the Park Seed Company research team, which grew samples of the space-exposed seed and matching control seed, monitoring the experimental plants for any differences or negative effects resulting from space travel. None were observed.

Additional Information:

The First Flight Of The Challenger
NASA's Getaway Special Program

Seeds in Space: LDEF

Satisfied with the success of the small-scale Get Away Special experience, Park Seed was pleased to be involved in a much larger endeavor the following year. On April 6, 1984, NASA sent into space the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), intended as an unmanned laboratory for studying the little-known environment of space.

The mission was officially know as STS-41C and was manned by Commander Robert L. Crippen, Pilot Francis R. Scobee, and Mission Specialists George D. Nelson, James D. A. von Hoften, and Terry J. Hart.

Included among many experiments on the LDEF were 14.5 million seeds from Park Seed Company. The experiment involved 106 different species, including 12.5 million tomato seeds alone! It was Park Seed’s intention to examine some of the seeds after their return to Earth, testing the effects of long-term radiation on genetic makeup, germination, and viability.

Some seed were to be grown at Park’s research facilities in Greenwood, SC. However, most of the seeds were destined to be sent to teachers throughout the country, along with non-space control seeds, for grow-out and experimentation by millions of young might-be scientists. Finally, some seed was disributed to research scientists elsewhere.

Originally scheduled to return after one year in orbit, a number of problems prevented its recovery, and as a result, the LDEF remained in space. Almost 6 years went by. Slowly the LDEF’s orbit decayed, coming perilously close to hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. Then, in a scenario worthy of a science-fiction movie, just as it was about to incinerate, the LDEF was rescued by the shuttle Columbia.

With utmost care and patience, so as not to contaminate them, the experiments were recovered, including the numerous canisters of Park’s space-traveling seeds.

At this point, the distribution phase of SEEDS (Space-Exposed Experiment Developed for Students) began. More than 132,000 kits, containing tomato seeds that had been on the LDEF, along with equal quantities of the same variety that had been stored at Park Seed's seed storage facility, were distributed to more than 64,000 teachers in more than 40,000 schools throughout the United States and 30 foreign countries.

Remember, the seeds had been in space 5 times longer than expected, and hence had been exposed to far more radiation than planned. But as reports of experiments began coming in, the indications were that this exposure had neither materially affected germination, nor had it brought about widespread genetic aberrations.

While news media would, no doubt, have preferred reports of man-eating tomatoes and the like, the fact is that, barring a few instances of foliar variegation, few mutations occurred. In fact, one group of six space-experiment tomatoes won first prize in the Kansas State Fair!

Because the tomatoes in question are open-pollinated, subsequent generations of plants from the experimental seeds could yet to be tested by scientists in the future, and possible long-range mutations might be detected.

Data from the student experiments were collected and analyzed at Oklahoma State University. In August of 1991, NASA published the compiled findings, entitled SEEDS: A Celebration of Science (NASA publication EP281).

Additional information:

A Spacecraft Designed For Experiments
Long Duration Exposure Facility
Challenger's Mission

Seeds in Space II: In Space, On Earth, and Under Water

Park Seed’s third joint venture with NASA was not as large in scope as the LDEF mission; however, it did add a new twist to the basic model. In addition to sending seeds into space and keeping a control batch on Earth at Park Seed’s national headquarters in Greenwood, SC, this mission also housed seeds below sea level.

This underwater aspect of the experimental design used the world’s only fixed seafloor laboratory at Key Largo, Florida. The laboratory, called MarineLab, is an example of a Closed Ecological Life Support System or CELSS. The point of a CELSS is to create a totally self-contained, life-support environment—much as you’d need if you were going to survive in outer space for long periods. MarineLab is part of NASA’s OCEAN project (Ocean CELSS Experimental Analog NASA), and it is operated out of the facilities of the Marine Resources Development Foundation in a lagoon of some 10 meters depth. Dennis Chamberlain was the OCEAN project commander.

The space-exposed seed for Seeds in Space II flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-86), which launched on September 25, 1997. Making up the flight crew were Commander James D. Wetherbee, Pilot Michael J. Bloomfield, Mission Specialists Vladimar G. Titov, Scott E. Parazynski, Jean-Loup J. M. Cretien, Wendy B. Lawrence and David A. Wolf.

At the conclusion of the exposure period, the space, control, and underwater seeds were packaged along with educational materials and distributed to educators around the USA for classroom use.

Additional Information:

NASA Seeds II Project
Growning Crops in a CELSS

Shuttle Flight

Mission Highlights for STS 60-91
STS 86: Atlantis Seventh Shuttle Mir-Docking
Mission Details For STS 86

OCEAN Project

Seeds in Space II
The NASA OCEAN Project
Developement of An Operational CELSS Prototype

Seeds in Space III: Engineering Challenge

The current round of Seeds in Space kicked off on July 4th, 2006, with the liftoff of space shuttle Discovery for mission STS-121. This time, the Park Seed payload comprised about 1 million Cinnamon Basil seed. The seed were included as one of the experiments in MISSE 4. MISSE stands for Materials International Space Station Experiments, a series of experiments that attach a sturdy "suitcase" or Passive Experiment Container, to the outside of the International Space Station to test how various materials stand up to the rigors of outer space. Visit the Park Seed Memories blog to see a photo album of the seeds being prepared for space travel.

As with past missions, an equal amount of Cinnamon Basil seed was held at the Greenwood, SC national headquarters to be used as a control group for students' experiments with the space seeds.

The real centerpiece of Seeds in Space III, however, was Shuttle mission STS-118, which launched on August 8, 2007. U.S. Navy Commander Scott J. Kelly commanded the seven-person crew. U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Charles O. Hobaugh was Endeavour's pilot. Veteran astronauts Richard A. Mastracchio and Dr. Dafydd (Dave) Williams of the Canadian Space Agency returned to space for their second missions. Barbara R. Morgan, Tracy E. Caldwell, Ph. D., and Benjamin Alvin Drew rounded out the crew as mission specialists.

STS-118’s primary mission was to continue building the International Space Station and included in its payload a third starboard truss segment for that purpose. However, this particular mission also had some very special aspects, both in terms of crew and payload.

First, Mission Specialist Barbara R. Morgan had more on her plate than just operating the shuttle’s robotic arm and performing other traditional astronaut duties. She is also a professional educator, and devoted some of her time to communicating with classrooms back on Earth via downlinks for live video-conferences.

Second, the payload contained some unusual items: two plant growth chambers and about 10 million more Cinnamon Basil seeds!

  • The growth chambers were built by Orbitec, a Wisconsin-based aerospace research and product development company. These chambers were part of a seed germination and plant growth experiment that attempted to raise Lettuce and Basil plants from seed on the shuttle. While the shuttle was docked at the International Space Station, the plant growth chambers were transferred to the ISS to continue the study. A Space Station crew member tended the sprouts and monitored the experiment. The formal experimental period was 20 days, but it’s likely that the plants will continue to grow and be subject to informal observation.
  • The Cinnamon Basil seeds were contributed by Park Seed Company. The seeds were stored in a pressurized space hub module, and the crew took photographs to document that the seeds had indeed been space travelers. At some point during this mission, the Basil seeds from the MISSE 4 experiment were brought onto Endeavour. When the shuttle returned to Earth, both sets of seeds were prepared for distribution to teachers and students, along with "control" seeds—Cinnamon Basil seeds that did not go into space—for experiments in their classrooms. See "NASA’s Engineer Design Challenge" (below) for more information.

Despite some initial concerns about minor damage to protective tiles on the Shuttle's exterior, the Endeavour and her crew returned safely. The Shuttle landed at Kennedy Space Center on August 21, 2007. In fact, it returned a bit earlier than expected, to avoid encountering a hurricaine in the Atlantic. The mission lasted a total of 12 days, 17 hours, and 55 minutes.

To learn more about mission STS-118 and especially these education-related opportunities, visit the STS-118 Educator's Resource Page and sign up for NASA’s express mail.

NASA’s Engineering Design Challenge

Educators from kindergarten through high school are invited by NASA and the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) to participate in the NASA Engineering Design Challenge for Fall 2007. During the school year, students will design, build, and assess plant growth chambers in a standards-based, grade-banded activity for elementary, middle, and high schools. Students will learn the basics of engineering and design, as well as how to conduct a scientific experiment.

There are three challenge tracks:

1. Design, build, and assess your own unique space plant growth chamber.

2. Build and assess your own growth chamber.

3. Assess a pre-built growth chamber.

Participating classrooms will receive space-exposed seeds to use along with other Earth seeds to actually test the design of the growth chambers they built or bought. This approach allows students to construct multi-layered experiments to assess both their growth chamber’s functionality and space-seed vs. Earth-seed performance.

The National Science Teachers Association (NTSA) is developing online teaching resources (SciGuides) that are related to the Engineering Design Challenge. And the International Technical Educators Association (ITEA) is offering standards-based curricular units for all grade levels.

Additional information:

Preflight Interview With Barbara Morgan
Have Your Own Space Garden

Future Adventures?

The Park Seed Company is proud to be part of the United States’ exploration of space, and we are especially pleased to support educators around the country in making science attractive and compelling for their students. Although no additional Seeds in Space projects are on the drawing board right now, you can bet that if another opportunity pops up, Park Seed Company will rise to the occasion!


Gardeners' Quotes

"You can tell which diseases tomatoes are resistant to by looking for letters such as V, F, N and T after the name of the tomato.  Each letter represents a problem the plant is bred to resist, and the more letters the better!"

---from Orene Horton's book, "Clippings from Orene's Garden"---