Seeds in Space

Park Seed and NASA --
Celebrating 25 Years of Seeds in Space

School kids get involved in exciting experiments, thanks to Park Seed's partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration!

Launch of NASA's LDEFOn July 4, 2006, Park Seed Company and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began the fourth leg of their long relationship, known as "SEEDS in Space." SEEDS stands for Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students. And just as the name implies, this unusual project has given millions of students around the country and around the world an opportunity to do serious, hands-on science with living material that has been to outer space and back. The story began in 1983 and continues even now, as Park Seed Company provides space-exposed Cinnamon Basil seeds to teachers and students participating in NASA?s latest Engineering Design Challenge: the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber.

Our first venture was a "Get Away Special" in 1983. This program, formally known as called the Small, Self-Contained Payloads program, invited people and businesses to pay NASA to include their own private experiments on a space shuttle flight. When George Park Jr. (then Park Seed assistant vice president) heard about the program, he saw it as a great opportunity. According to a press release from 1983, George believed 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."

Park Seed and NASA: Space-Exposed Tomato SeedWhen the Challenger space shuttle was launched on April 4, 1983 for Mission STS-6, Park Seed?s Get Away Special payload was on board. That payload comprised about 25 pounds of seed from 40 different varieties of common fruits and vegetables-from sweet corn to potatoes. Once the seed returned to Earth, George Park invited the company's researchers to study the effects of radiation and extreme temperature changes on the seeds. Their findings? The seed did not appear to have been negatively affected by their out-of-this-world experience.

The Get Away Special experience was such a success from everyone's perspective that it seemed natural for NASA and Park Seed to continue working together where seeds and space were both involved.

In 1984, millions of tomato seeds were sent into space aboard Challenger Shuttle Mission STS-41C, as part of NASA's Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) project. LDEF carried dozens of experiments from many different disciplines. The purpose of Park Seed's part of the experiment was to observe the effects of deep space on seeds. The cargo remained in Earth orbit for 5 years until 1989, when Columbia Shuttle Mission STS-32 retrieved the LDEF, and the seeds were returned to Earth. They were then distributed for use in science experiments. Ultimately, 132,000 experimental kits were sent to 64,000 teachers in more than 40,000 schools, involving more than 3 million students, throughout the United States and 30 foreign countries - one of the largest science experiments ever.

Participating students from elementary schools, high schools, and colleges were given at least 50 flight seeds and 50 control seeds (i.e., seeds that never left Earth). Students designed their own experiments and participated in testing their own hypotheses, making decisions, and collecting data. Students prepared detailed reports about their observations, and those results were compiled and published in 1991 by NASA's Educational Affairs Division as SEEDS: A Celebration of Science.

(In case you are wondering, the space seeds did not grow into mutant killer tomatoes. As it turns out, space is a terrific place to store your seeds-it's nice and dry, and cold enough to keep the seeds dormant. On the down side, though, getting to a space station is pretty inconvenient when you want to pick up a few seeds for your garden!)

NASA's LDEFIn 1997, Park Seed and NASA teamed up again. For the September 25, 1997 launch of NASA's shuttle Atlantis, Park Seed donated over 20 pounds of tomato seed, which were exposed to deep space conditions for 10-14 days, then returned to Earth for observation and germination tests. Concurrently, 20 pounds of tomato seed were lowered to NASA's manned underwater laboratory off Key Largo. Finally, a 20-pound control group was maintained at the Park Seed facility in Greenwood, South Carolina.

These seeds (some 300,000 packets) were then distributed by NASA to schools throughout America as part of NASA's "Mission to America's Remarkable Students" (MARS) outreach program. Students were encouraged to grow tomatoes from the "Space Base" seeds, the "Earth Base" seeds, and the underwater seeds; track the growth and other characteristics; and then keep Park Seed informed on the results.

NASA AstronautThe most recent Seeds in Space adventure began on July 4, 2006, when approximately 1 million Cinnamon Basil seeds caught a ride to the International Space Station via NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery. This time, the seeds were stored in a "suitcase" that also contained materials being evaluated as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiments (MISSEs) 3 and 4. The suitcases, more properly called Passive Experiment Containers (PECs) were attached to the International Space Station (ISS) during an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) that lasted for five hours and 54 minutes. Space station crewmen Jeff Williams and Thomas Reiter worked diligently to complete their spacewalk "to-do" lists, including deployment of the MISSE samples.

STS-118But that was just the first step of Seeds in Space III! Next came Mission STS-118, the flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour that launched on August 8, 2007. One of the crew members on this flight was Mission Specialist and Educator Barbara R. Morgan. In addition to her regular astronaut duties, such as working the shuttle's robotic arm, Ms. Morgan communicated with teachers and students via real-time downlinks.

Endeavour's payload contained another 10 million Cinnamon Basil seeds and two plant growth chambers. During the flight, the Cinnamon Basil seed were exposed to outer space conditions. And an astronaut attempted to germinate lettuce and basil seeds in the plant growth chambers. Once Endeavour reached the International Space Station, those plant growth chambers and their contents were transferred to the station to continue a 20-day formal experimental period. Of course, we hope that the ISS occupants will long continue observing and enjoying their "space garden" informally. In another exchange with the space station, the MISSE PECs (including the one with our Cinnamon Basil seeds) was loaded onto Endeavour for the trip back home. The Shuttle Endeavour landed safely at Kennedy Space Center on August 21, 2007.

STS-118The space-exposed Cinnamon Basil seeds (with corresponding Earth-based control seeds) were returned to Park Seed Company's famed Seed Room to be packed for distribution to participants in NASA's Engineering Design Challenge. This particular Engineering Design Challenge is a chance for teachers and students at all grade levels to design and build (or buy) a plant growth chamber. For primary school students, that growth chamber might be something as simple as a plastic pot. For high school students, it could be a complex as a mini-greenhouse suitable for use on the Moon?just like those "special, enclosed environments" that George Park, Jr. envisioned! Regardless of the complexity of the plant growth chamber, Park Seed Company will be providing the Cinnamon Basil seeds to use for actually testing the chambers.

We look forward to hearing from all the student scientists about their experiences with the Engineering Design Challenge and with growing their space seeds. And we also look forward to future flights and adventures with our friends at NASA. As every astronaut will tell you, once you've tasted the thrill of space exploration, you can't wait to do it again!

Park Seed and NASA: Scientists Examine the LDEF Containers