Leaf structure and function under space flight conditions have received little study despite their important implications for biological life support systems using plants. Previous reports described disruption of the membrane apparatus for photosynthesis and a general decrease in carbohydrate content in foliage. During a series of three short-duration experiments (Chromex-03, -04, -05) on the US space shuttle (STS-54, STS-51, STS-68), we examined Arabidopsis thaliana leaves. The plants were at the rosette stage at the time of loading onto the space shuttle, and received the same light, temperature, carbon dioxide and humidity regimes in the orbiter as in ground controls. The experiments differed according to the regime provided in the headspace around the plants: this was either sealed (on mission STS-54); sealed with high levels of carbon dioxide (on mission STS-51) or vented to the cabin air through a filtration system (on mission STS-68). Immediately post-flight, leaf materials were fixed for microscopy or frozen in liquid nitrogen for subsequent analyses of chlorophyll and foliar carbohydrates. At the ultrastructural level, no aberrations in membrane structure were observed in any of the experiments. When air-flow was provided, plastids developed large starch grains in both spaceflight and ground controls. In the experiments with sealed chambers, spaceflight plants differed from ground controls with regard to measured concentrations of carbohydrate and chlorophyll, but the addition of airflow eliminated these differences. The results point to the crucial importance of consideration of the foliage microenvironment when spaceflight effects on leaf structure and metabolism are studied.