In 1960, NASA became the big item on the agenda. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy said that the American goal was to put a man on the moon within 10 years.

All of a sudden, billions of dollars were being appropriated to work in a field that no one knew anything about. I was a microbiologist who was looking for microbes on the walls of hospitals and bacteria in the air of laundries and operating rooms. So when NASA wanted to find out if there were any microbes in the stratosphere, believe it or not, I won the contract to explore the stratosphere for living microorganisms.

There was a whole group of us. The plan was to send a satellite around the earth and let it orbit for maybe three days, 20 orbits or so, just like John Glenn. No humans would be aboard this spacecraft. Instead, Believe it or not, I won the contractit would be filled with scientific experiments of one sort or another, all designed to help us learn a little bit about what happens when you put live things into outer space and keep them there for a while.

We know that for all kinds of living things, when they are in their young, formative, sensitive stages, they’re the most vulnerable. Most of the bad things that happen to children happen when they’re the youngest—in utero, or relatively soon after birth. Plants are equally sensitive. So to get the greatest effect, we biologists decided to conduct our experiments on very young units—we had little worms, we had little sea urchins, and a few other young things. The idea was to put them in little containers, send them up, let them orbit for 20 revolutions, and then bring them down. Then we’d look to see what happened.

Another of the experiments we sent up involved the germination of seedlings—wheat, rye and barley seeds, and green beans. This kind of experiment is a classic. Everyone who’s ever been to first grade has seen this: The teacher takes a bean seed, folds it into blotting paper or cotton batting, soaks it in water, and maybe puts it between two pieces of glass. Then you leave it alone for a little while, overnight, over Shabbat. When the kids come back to school, they’re astonished: the seed has sprouted.

It’s a classic experiment. We know exactly how much time it takes any given seed to germinate. Understand, we have no idea at all what specifically triggers it, but we know the timeline. First the seed coat will break, and a little sprig goes out from it, growing down. Give it a bit more time, and that sprig will develop tiny root hairs, and it grows still more. In a couple of days, there’s a pretty substantial root system.

An hour or two after the root breaks out, another string starts growing horizontally, and then it inevitably turns up. That’s the stem. Within a day or two it develops leaves, and then flowers. And there you have it: this little seed is now a bean plant.

This is the perfect example of the complexity of simplicity, and one of those everyday miracles that overwhelms me. Everything that plant needs to begin life is within the seed. All it needs is a little water and a bit of nurture.

So at NASA, we sent up our seedlings, and we brought them back. When we opened the container, there wasn’t a single person in the room who wasn’t completely fascinated. Unbelievable!

The seedlings had germinated. They sprouted, just as they would have on earth. Indeed, the root sprig began growing downward. But then, chaos intervened. Instead of continuing down, the roots radically bent sideways, or horizontally. Sometimes they started growing up, sometimes they turned back and grew down again, in a loop. Understand, it was a root. It had the requisite root hairs. But the system didn’t grow in any predictable It meandered around in chaosfashion, it just meandered around in chaos. It was a freak of nature, or to use a very scientific term, a monster.

The same was true of the stem: It sprouted just fine, but from there, all was chaos. The stem didn’t grow up, it jutted here and there, back and forth, in loops and whirls. Unlike anything I’d ever seen.

I took the pictures of our seedlings and brought them to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He gazed at them, as fascinated as I was. “See?” he said. “Even a plant needs to know what’s up and what’s down. Even a plant knows where up is.”

Today we know a little more about it. Hormones are involved in determining the direction in which the germinating shoots will grow. In fact, we know now that you can correct the damage. Put the seedling into a centrifuge, and restore the elements of gravity that had been withheld. Given some sense of gravity, the seedling corrects itself, and will grow up and down.

But everything—even a simple plant—needs to have an orientation.