Cosmic journey

These tomatoes taste great

Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2007

TOPEKA, Kan. Tess Wilson is happy to report she doesn't glow in the dark. The 17-year-old Topeka High School senior, spent her summer tending to and eating tomatoes she grew from second-generation seeds, which were obtained from tomato plants grown from seeds that spent several years exposed to cosmic radiation.

People and companies in 1983 were invited to pay NASA to include their own private experiments on a space shuttle flight, according to the Park Seed Co. Web site,

When the Challenger space shuttle was launched in April 1983, Park Seed's Get Away Special seeds were on board.

The payload included 25 pounds of seeds from 40 different varieties of common fruits and vegetables (from sweet corn to potatoes), the Web site states.

Once the seeds returned to Earth, Park Seed Co. researchers studied the effects of radiation and extreme temperature changes on the seeds.

They said the seeds didn't appear to have been affected.

In 1984, Park Seed Co. tomato seeds were launched aboard NASA's Long Duration Exposure Facility, said Harry M. Peterson Jr., facilitator for gifted students at Topeka High.

The seeds were rotated along with other experiments aboard a school bus-sized satellite as it orbited Earth.

The Challenger disaster in 1986 interrupted the NASA shuttle schedule, therefore delaying the return of the satellite with the seeds until 1989.

Peterson, along with other teachers around the world, received some of the seeds. There were 132,000 experimental kits sent to 64,000 teachers in more than 40,000 schools. More than 3 million students were involved.

Peterson and students at Eisenhower Middle School planted the seeds, and in 1990, the results were issued to NASA.

In 1991, those results were compiled and published by NASA's Educational Affair Division.

For 17 years, Peterson saved second-generation seeds from the original experiment in his refrigerator. He kept the seeds in sealed vials placed in the crisper drawers of his refrigerator.

Then he found the right student Wilson to take part in a second-generation seed experiment.

In April, Wilson planted six of the second-generation seeds along with three control seeds.

The control seeds came from the original control plants used during earlier experiments.

Wilson found some of the second-generation plants grew more slowly than the control plants, but that was where the differences stopped.

"They tasted just like any other tomato," she said. "There weren't too many differences between them."

There was another "Seeds in Space" adventure in July 2006, according to the Park Seed Co. Web site. Three million basil seeds were given a ride on NASA's space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station.

The most recent adventure was scheduled to take place in August when Endeavour was supposed to take another 10 million Cinnamon Basil seeds and two plant growth chambers into space.

Back on Earth, specifically Topeka, it's a good thing Wilson likes tomatoes, because she ate a lot of them over the past few months. She and her mother enjoyed tomatoes from the vines all summer at their home in Meriden.

Topeka High's greenhouse is home to a few remaining plants Peterson placed in containers.

Peterson is happy because he wants to save some seeds for a future experiment.

The remaining plants have several bright, yellow blooms on them, which means even more tomatoes for Wilson.

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