Physiologist to speak on plants’ benefits beyond Earth

If we are ever to go boldly where no humans have gone before, we’d do well to bring flowers.

Better yet, we had best take along lettuce, some dwarf peas and dwarf tomatoes, some mizuna, wheat and radishes. Especially the radishes.

Man, for several reasons, has taken plants into space for the entire time we have tested the bindings of gravity.

The least obvious advantage to plants in space, though, might be the most significant, said Bruce Bugbee, professor of crop physiology at Utah State University.

“The psychological value of plants has become more important than even their biological value,” Bugbee said in an interview with The Daily Sentinel.

Bugbee will speak about growing plants in space at 7:30 p.m. April 9 in the ACB Building, 1400 Houston Ave. The presentation is part of the Tri Beta Western Regional Conference at Mesa State College.

Tri Beta is the national honor society for biology undergraduates.

“Before the first lunar outpost, the proposed Mars base, and other future missions from planet Earth can become realities, numerous scientific and technological problems remain to be solved,” NASA says on a Web page devoted to plants in space. “None of these problems is more important than that of supporting human life in space.”

Even before Alan Shepard became the first American in space, NASA realized that people had to have oxygen to survive in space. It didn’t take long to figure out that oxygen tanks simply wouldn’t cut it — there had to be a better way to fill spacecraft with breathable air.

Space dreamers were thinking of more than short hops into space.

“Among NASA engineers there was an intense passion to develop long-term life support systems,” Bugbee said, “not just for one week or one month but indefinitely.”

Early studies used photosynthesis from algae to maintain oxygen levels, but the stuff was a one-trick plant at best.

“It was like eating lawn grass,” Bugbee said of the single-celled organisms. Crop plants, however, offered more than oxygen. They also offered a solution to “the water problem,” specifically how to recycle wastewater.

Put the roots in wastewater and the plant produces not just oxygen, but highly purified water, Bugbee said.

As providers of oxygen, water purification and food, plants have been taken aloft for almost all of the life of the space program. Their growth has been measured, tested and carefully recorded.

“NASA has been growing plants in the space station almost continuously from the early days,” Bugbee said. “There’s a small chamber of plants, like an aquarium with bright lights.”

Inside is lettuce and mizuna, a leafy plant liked by the Russians.

That chamber, or aquarium, may be the prime spot on the space station, Bugbee said.

But for a tiny porthole, the space station’s walls are covered with switches and other equipment, Bugbee said.

“It’s somewhat like the inside of the Death Star,” with the brightest color being battleship gray, he said.

The plant chamber breaks the cold monotony of the walls and thus it is “wildly popular up there,” Bugbee said.

As high tech as exploration of outer space might seem, the real value of plants in space, Bugbee said, is an emotional, visceral one.

“The psychological value of plants up there is just enormous,” he said. “Their psychological value may be even more important than their biological value.

“One of the profound mysteries of space travel is that we do not yet understand why association with plants is so critical to the well-being of people,” Bugbee said. “Part of it is having bright light, but people are calmer when they are growing plants even in low light. We think part of it has to do with the satisfaction of nurturing other organisms.

“We can make synthetic plants look real, but they don’t need to be watered, they don’t grow, they don’t ever get sick, and they don’t affirm the biological connections that we evolved with.”

The biological value of plants already is high all by itself.

It costs on the order of $10,000 a pound to launch food into space, Bugbee said.

On the other hand, some plants travel well.

Lettuce is a favorite, as is mizuna, which is described as having a piquant, mild peppery, slightly spicy flavor and a favorite of cosmonauts.

Radishes, though, seem to thrive in places like the space station.

“Radishes love continuous light,” Bugbee said. “Most plants need to sleep, just like people do. Not radishes. Put lights on them for 24 hours and they grow faster. They love it.”

Talk of life in space isn’t entirely apple-pie-in-the-sky.

Plans call for a space station on the moon and for Americans eventually to visit Mars.

“We will definitely grow plants on the moon,” Bugbee said. “Potentially right in the lunar soil.”

There is evidence of water on the moon, which will lessen the need to transport it there, he said.

After the moon, Mars.

“Mars is way more interesting than the moon,” he said, noting it has an atmosphere that might be conducive to growing plants.

The mission is a long one, though, and it’s likely that plants will go along.

“We know there are significant differences among people in their response to plants, but we have found that the synergistic effect of plants is difficult to predict from short-term studies on Earth,” Bugbee said. “We could select a crew that said they didn’t need plants, but we don’t know if they would have the best personalities for a five-year trip to Mars.”

Bugbee’s speech is open to the public. Additional sponsors of the conference are the Mesa State Chapter of Sigma Xi, The Western Colorado Math & Science Center and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium.


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