Space research can take you to some odd places. Siberia isn’t known for being a hospitable environment, and cosmonauts used to go into space with a gun in case something went wrong with their re-entry and they wound up having to defence themselves from bears in a Siberian forest. Even so, Russia has built a new spaceport there (Vostochny Cosmodrome), to reduce dependency on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan.

But Siberia has an older connection to outer space. Its arctic climate is the perfect habitat for Rhodiola rosea (golden root, roseroot), and for centuries this medicinal herb was harvested by certain Siberian families, who kept the location of the plants, and their harvesting techniques, secret. They brought it down mountain trails to trade for Georgian wine, fruit, and honey.  

Rhodiola rosea, Geaidnojohka and Geaidnogáisá
Rhodiola rosea growing in Norway, by Tero Laakso, via Flickr

During World War II, the Soviet government drafted scientists to search for substances that would help their soldiers overcome fatigue and win on the battlefield. In the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was competing with the West in military development, the arms race, space exploration, Olympic sports, science, medicine, and industry. The Soviet Ministry of Defence actively sought ways to boost the productivity of its scientists and the ability of its cosmonauts to perform difficult mental tasks during spaceflight and long work shifts.

They found that amphetamines and other chemical stimulants were only effective in the short term, and their long term use had serious consequences. So in 1948, a team of Soviet researchers studied the chemical composition and biological activities of 158 herbal folk remedies. They found four that had the ability to promote increased resistance (to all kinds of stress): Eleutherococcus senticuosus (sometimes called Siberian ginseng or eleuthero); Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng or Korean ginseng); Rhaponticum carthamoides (rhaponticum or luzea); and Rhodiola rosea. Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, the lead scientist, called them adaptogens.  

Growing Rhodiola, by Søren Holt, via Flickr

The Soviet experiments found that Rhodiola rosea enhanced learning and memory and increased mental speed and accuracy. During the early days of the Space Race, they developed a compound called ADAPT (also known as MPPA), which contained Rhodiola rosea, Schizandra chinensis and Eleutherococcus senticuosus, and was intended to improve alertness and resistance to stress. The initial tests were conducted on Earth on technology engineers and students, and found that the formula improved mental function. 

Their research was shrouded in secrecy, and it wasn’t until quite recently that Dr Patricia Gerbarg (one of the authors of The Rhodiola Revolution) uncovered proof that it had also been tested on cosmonauts in space. Dr Valery Polyakov spent 8 months on the Mir space station in 1989, and returned there in 1994 to set a world record for time spent in orbit (437 days, which remains the longest single stay in space).

A 1994 report points to ADAPT being tested on cosmonauts in space, experiments that would have had to have been carried out on Mir. In 1996, Dr Polyakov gave a speech in which he presented the results of ADAPT studies during pre-flight training and on Mir, which he concluded had positive effects on general wellbeing. It is therefore assumed that he conducted the experiments.  

Rhodiola rosea
Rhodiola rosea, by Tero Laakso, via Flickr 

These days, Rhodiola is touted as a superherb panacea worldwide, which had led to concerns about it being over-harvested. However, enterprising farmers are growing it in Alaska. It loves the cold temperatures and long days there, and fetches higher prices than other crops that fare less well.

Oh, and US scientists are finally catching up and doing their own research. Will Rhodiola become a vital part of future space missions, or be cultivated off-planet? Only time will tell.