One of the most triumphant moments in the book and recent movie The Martian comes when lead character, Mark Watney, successfully grows a potato crop on Mars. It’s more than food for survival; he’s also nourishing his spirit. In space, there is no scent of baking bread, no wind on your face, no sound of raindrops hitting the roof, no favorite kitten to curl up in your lap. Over time, being deprived of these common earthbound sense stimulations takes a toll. Having limited access to stimuli to the senses is identified as a significant risk by NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance team.
The zinnias bloomed, Commander Scott Kelly announced with a tweet. “Yes, there are other life forms in space!” he joked on Jan. 16. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the growth of zinnia plants on Nov. 16, 2015, as part of an experiment in the Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE), a facility that will help scientists learn how to grow fresh produce on orbit for the agency’s journey to Mars. Lindgren’s work with the zinnias was continued by Kelly after Lindgren’s departure. They are using red, green, and blue LEDlights 10 hours a day to stimulate growth of the plants.
The countermeasure to sensory monotony is sensory stimulation. Working with plantsprovides astronauts visual, tactile and olfactory stimulation, and eventually even salivary stimulation with fresh foods and variety.