As part of our news series, we’ll be interviewing prominent figures in astrobotany and their role in advancing the subject forward.
Our first interview is with Dr. Raymond Wheeler, a NASA plant physiologist based at the Kennedy Space Center and Vice Chair for the Life Sciences Commission of the International Committee for Space Research (COSPAR).
More interviews will be forthcoming.
Let’s grow plants in space.
Throughout nearly 30 years of scientific research and space flight missions, Raymond Wheeler has made significant contributions to a field that is just beginning to take off – astrobotany.
Wheeler has been working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a plant physiologist at Kennedy Space Center since 1988, where he has worked to make space farming a reality. He’s also an alumni of UW-Madison, where he was a postdoctoral researcher studying bioregenerative life support systems at the Biotron Laboratory.
Space plant research wasn’t always a lifelong passion for Wheeler, however. Through the course of his research, he began to form a deeper understanding of the roles plants contribute toward human life, beyond just the obvious oxygen production and feedstock supply.
“Certainly I’ve built an appreciation and maybe a bit of an emotional connection to plants over time,” Wheeler admitted. “Plants also have a good functional role and rationale for considering them for space. They’re sort of our evolutionary companions you might say.”
The philosophical view of plants Wheeler holds might best be summed up as biophilia. This concept has been heavily explored by biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, which he defines as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” Humans are most certainly co-dependent on the existence of plants for basic survival, but Wilson argues there’s a psychological benefit to a green environment as well.
Wheeler believes these benefits from plant life could one day extend to the outer reaches of space. But before that can happen, he said methods for effectively adapting plants to a spaceflight environment must be discovered.
Part of Wheeler’s work focuses on documenting the history of astrobotany research, most prominently featured in his recently published paper titled Agriculture for Space: People and Places Paving the Way. He highlights major developments in space agriculture from researchers around the world that have helped shape the field over the past 70 years.
Advancements in space agricultural systems have also given way to more practical discoveries, such as the use of hydroponics and energy efficient LED technology. Wheeler believes this is just the beginning of agricultural advancements for space, and there will be many more to come.
“Just the fact that we can extend the yields of many crops well beyond their reported records from field settings is really important,” Wheeler explained. “That’s neat stuff and it’d be nice if the public were more aware of those things,” Wheeler said.
Dr. Wheeler continues his excellent work at the Kennedy Space Center for NASA.
Let’s grow plants in space.