Tiny pale brown seeds spent six years circling Earth in a satellite. They spent the next 14 years shelved away at Cochise Elementary School in Scottsdale.
For science lab instructor Gayle Hall, when the tomato plants sprouted 13 days after they were planted this month, it was nothing short of a momentous event.
"It’s a miracle," Hall said, as she watched over the baby plants she and a group of fourth-graders planted Feb. 2.
Students planted fresh tomato seeds alongside the space seeds, that in 1984 were launched aboard Space Shuttle Challenger, to see how they fare in comparison.
After the Challenger exploded Jan. 28, 1986, it wasn’t until 1990 that the Space Shuttle Columbia retrieved the satellite, saving the seeds.
The Columbia exploded Feb. 1, 2003.
So far, the Earth seeds have germinated faster. University of Arizona professor Pat Rorabaugh says their age makes it amazing the space seeds have germinated at all.
Rorabaugh, who runs the Controlled Environment Agricultural Center, which uses tomatoes for its studies, has been in communication with Hall, sharing possible experiments to learn from the plants as they grow.
As part of the class’s earth science curriculum, students are measuring and studying the plants daily.
Children and adults at the Scottsdale school peer into the classroom daily to watch the experiment that should have happened in 1990 when NASA first distributed space seeds to teachers throughout the nation.
A false report spread rumors back then that solar flares and radiation from the sun made the seeds dangerous — causing the experiment to fail before scientists could disprove the claims as teachers threw away the seeds.
But Hall stumbled onto the seed packets and booklets about the original experiment, which were tidily packed away at her school, and teacher Becca Hirschfeld agreed to take on the experiment.
Robbie Snader, 9, said he watched his plants carefully every day waiting to see the experiment unfold.
Yet to be known is the species of tomato, color, size and health.
"I think the space seeds, when they grow, will be edible," Robbie said.
Hall and principal Diane Smith have promised to take the first bites.
"I think the space seeds are smaller because they had radiation and it stunted their growth," said Maria Zorn, 10.
Two of her three space seeds have sprouted while her Earth seeds are thriving with six tiny plants.
Hall hopes to continue the project on an annual basis, if the plants thrive and seed.
The growth of the plants can be viewed online at