After orbiting Earth as seeds, space pumpkins keep bearing fruit

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 4:44pm
By Skip Anderson, City Paper correspondent

When it comes to pumpkins, George Killgore has seen it all. When he is not working his day job as director of the University of Tennessee Extension in Davidson County, he can be found measuring and weighing some of the South’s plumpest pumpkins. Killgore serves as emcee and judge at the state’s two official pumpkin weigh-offs — the Tennessee State Fair and the Great Pumpkin Festival and Weigh-Off in Allardt, Tenn., 120 miles east of Nashville.

Though he once measured a gargantuan gourd in excess of 1,200 pounds, that’s not what tops his pumpkin curriculum vitae. Killgore is one of few to grow pumpkins from seeds that have orbited the planet.

Through a personal connection with astronaut Roger K. Crouch, Killgore sent five seeds from a 700-pound pumpkin (then a record) aboard space shuttle Columbia, where they orbited the earth 251 times in 1997.

“It took about three months to get the seeds back from their space journey,” Killgore told The City Paper. “Four of the seeds were planted, two of which germinated and grew into pumpkin plants. That’s pretty normal; the germination rate for pumpkins is about 50 percent.”

Although neither of the space-seed pumpkins displayed out-of-this-world attributes — “They didn’t glow in the dark!” — one of them did grow to be a 659-pounder, the largest pumpkin Killgore has ever personally grown.

And the space-pumpkin legacy continues, as the two original space-seed pumpkins bore about 300 seeds, some of which are still used in cultivation today, Killgore said.

“I probably have about 25 of those seeds left,” he said. “Some pumpkins have grown from those original seeds that have weighed over 800 pounds.”

And the fifth original space seed?

“There’s one space seed left,” Killgore said. “And its on display in a plaque the city of Allardt’s municipal building.”