Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

By Ivan Amato — April 01, 1990 6 min read

They came from outer space, twelve and a half million of them. And this spring they’re heading straight for nearly 150,000 classrooms all over the country.

No Klingon warlords or hirsute Wookies these, but rather garden-variety space invaders. They look exactly like tomato seeds, because...well, that’s exactly what they are. But they could grow into the hottest science project under the sun.

The seeds came to Earth in January, coach-class passengers on a school-bus-sized satellite called the Long Duration Exposure Facility--LDEF, for short.

From April 1984 until this past January, when astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia latched onto LDEF and gently nudged it into the payload bay, the satellite’s cargo of experimental materials had been hurtling through near-Earth space, circling the planet at 17,000 miles per hour. LDEF’s mission was to test the effects of the space environment on the kinds of materials aerospace scientists think they will need to use in future spacecraft such as space stations.

But LDEF was not all work and no play. Along with the 56 other science and technology experiments on board was a project called the Space-Exposed Experiment Developed for Students (SEEDS). Should the seeds prove viable, roughly four million students-- mostly 5th graders through high school seniors--will receive the seeds, and will grow them to determine the effects, if any, of years of exposure to space.

Growing the seeds, though, is expected to be like playing the biology lottery. No one can predict which seeds, or even how many, may have picked up genetic mutations during their half-decade stay in space--a cold, airless place coursing with gene-jumbling cosmic rays. So with every new class period this spring, each participating student might learn that he or she has sown one of the weirdest tomato plants that cosmic rays can produce. The seeds may mutate, producing a strain of fruit perfect for growing in dry soil, or they may be the deadest seeds within 100 million miles of the sun. It’s also possible, perhaps likely, that the seeds will behave as though they had never spent years in space.

NASA originally had planned to keep LDEF aloft for about a year--two at most. But scheduling delays in the shuttle program and the explosion of the Challenger in 1986 placed LDEF retrieval indefinitely on NASA’s back burner. Its recovery regained priority status last year as the satellite’s decaying orbit had brought it alarmingly close to the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Shuttle astronauts plucked LDEF from its precarious orbit just weeks before it, and its treasure of unharvested data, would have met a fiery end.

Now, the once-marooned seeds are back on earth and on their way to their ultimate destinations in upper elementary, junior high, senior high, and some college classrooms in the United States, Canada, and perhaps other countries. It’s been a long wait, especially for Janell Alston, principal of Pinecrest Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C. In 1983, she and several other junior high- and college-level educators helped NASA and the Park Seed Company, also in Greenwood, develop experiments appropriate for various grade levels.

“Any way that we can excite children into experimenting and becoming involved in science is important,” Alston says. If teachers can spark scientific curiosity in more students during their elementary school years, maybe they’ll stick with science throughout their lives, she adds.

“This is the first time that a large amount of biological material that has been exposed to space for any length of time is going to schoolkids rather than to academia or professional scientists,” stresses Jim Alston, Janell’s husband and director of research at Park Seed. “The kids are going to get to do the first experiments,” he says with a smile in his voice. In addition to providing the space-exposed seeds, the company has been storing an equal number of control seeds that also will play prominently in this spring’s experiments.

All of the seeds--both the space-borne and the down-to-earth controls--are of the variety called Tomato Rutgers California Supreme. Since this variety’s traits are already well-known and remain unusually consistent from generation to generation, they are a perfect choice for this type of experiment. With the control plants as their guide, students should easily distinguish between normal variations in the experimental tomatoes, such as lighter or darker greens in the stems and leaves, and genuine cosmic ray-induced mutations, such as banana-shaped fruit.

Although Park Seed has never expected that the SEEDS project would yield a new, commercially promising strain, company officials will keep an ear to the ground. “If a teacher calls and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this bright blue tomato over here,’ we’re going to take a look at it,” Alston remarks.

Now that the seeds are back on Earth, Park Seed workers are responsible for testing the seeds’ viability and safety. During their orbiting phase, the seeds were packed in four vertical layers. Seeds in layers progressively closer to the surface of the satellite presumably received higher and higher doses of mutation-causing radiation.

In early March, the company also began preparing separate packets of space and control seeds for each of the SEEDS kits that NASA’s division of Educational Services has designed for teachers and students. Each packet contains 50 seeds.

In addition to the seeds, the kits will contain a teachers’ guide with suggestions for experiments, a list of NASA teacher resource centers around the country, and an information retrieval booklet, which includes a data sheet that can be read by a computer. In June, after students have completed their experiments, teachers will send the completed data sheets to Oklahoma State University-Stillwater, where the data will be tabulated, interpreted, and assembled into summaries. These should be available to all participating classes and other interested persons sometime in September, according to J. Gregory Marlins, director of NASA-SEEDS project in the space agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The teachers’ guide suggests experiments that range in complexity from very easy ones suitable for elementary school students (plant the seeds and see what happens) to interbreeding space seeds with other tomato plants-- an experiment that college students might want to attempt. All students will be asked to observe and record such results as the proportion of seeds that actually grow, how fast these seeds grow, and what shapes their stems and leaves have. But emphasis is on creativity and curiosity. Teachers should encourage the students to ask their own questions and try to answer them, Marlins says.

To get the SEEDS kits, which NASA began distributing last month, teachers should send their name, school address, and their students’ grade level to NASA SEEDS Project, Educational Affairs Division, Code XEO, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC 20546. Marlins says kits will be sent as long as they’re available. Unfortunately, those classes that plant seeds well into April may have to wait until their summer vacation before any of their plants produce fruit--unless, of course, they are fast-fruiting mutants.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes