Back in 2014, through a NASA project called Veggie, scientists began to grow plants in space—red romaine lettuce, to be specific. It took two attempts to get it right, though even the setbacks provided valuable data for the scientists back at home. So astronaut Scott Kelly's ability to coax zinnias that were wilting, curling, and even moldy just a few weeks ago to bloom into full flower is a triumph. Kelly asked to take the reins from the Veggie team—which had been dictating all plant-related moves from Earth—just before Christmas Eve after he grew convinced that the flowers, which had been waterlogged and were being blasted with fans set on high, needed water before their assigned time. Now called an "autonomous" space gardener, as NASA reports, on Saturday Kelly tweeted a photos of his success: the "first ever flower grown in space." "Yes, there are other life forms in space!" he added.
Zinnias are "more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics [than lettuce and have] a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days," a Veggie project manager explains. That made it a harder plant to grow, and "a good precursor to a tomato plant," which NASA hopes to attempt in 2018. "Having this fresh food source available is going to be critical," Gioia Massa, the Veggie mastermind, told the Christian Science Monitor in November. "The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits," Massa said upon the activation of the Veggie program. Next up, a SpaceX spacecraft is scheduled to deliver seeds for Chinese cabbage and another batch of red romaine. (Here are 8 cool facts about the International Space Station.)