In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I take a look at some of the journeys familiar plants have made across the globe, and touch on their arrival in previously inhospitable places – underwater, Antarctica and even outer space. Since writing it I have become increasingly interested in the idea of plants in space, and have blogged about some of the current projects (lettuce on the ISS, and a ‘Mars’ greenhouse in Hawaii, you can scroll through the posts by selecting the space blog category). Researching the history of plants in space has proven to be quite a challenge. It’s not that there’s no information available, it’s that there’s a *lot*, and it’s a fascinating topic. Tracking down one piece of research inevitably brings up something new and shiny, and you’re off down a rabbit hole. It occurred to me that it’s a bit like a maze, and I thought we could treat it like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.
So… here’s the plan. I’ll write a blog post on something interesting I’ve found during the course of my research, and then list three rabbit holes I could have quite happily fallen down. You’ll have a few days to vote on which topic you’d like to hear more about, and then a couple of days later, voila! a new blog post will appear and we’ll repeat the process. We’ll be going on a research adventure together. Ideally I’d like to do one new post a week for the series, but whether I’ll be able to keep that up is another matter (things are a little busy here).
This week I have been reading The MIR space station: A precursor to space colonization by David M. Harland, who is an author and space historian. He has put together a very detailed book about the history of Soviet space stations – the Salyut series and Mir. I have been guilty in the past of assuming that advances in space have mainly been made by Western nations (NASA is very good at disseminating information, and the USA is justly proud of its space programme), but in fact a lot of nations contribute to space research, and a lot of pioneering plant science came out of the Soviet programme. It was on Mir, for example, that the first plant completed an entire lifecycle (from seed, to mature plant, to seeds) in space – the result of a concerted effort to overcome the many problems inherent in horticulture in microgravity. (Objects in orbit around the Earth experience ‘weightlessness’ because they’re always falling; although this is sometimes referred to as ‘zero g’ or ‘zero gravity’, it’s more accurate to say that the gravitational forces are very small – hence microgravity).
Harland’s book isn’t about plants, it’s about space exploration. He goes through each and every space mission relating to the Salyut stations, and Mir, through to the Shuttle-Mir missions and the plans for the ISS. (The book was published in 1997, and so pre-dates Mir’s demise in 2001.) What saves this from being a very dry recitation of facts is that Harland includes a lot of the human aspects of space exploration. The book doesn’t gloss over the very real risks that the cosmonauts were taking, or the lives that have been lost. He relives the drama of cosmonauts being stranded on a damaged and leaking space station, after a collision with a supply vehicle. He draws out an important thread – that a continuously manned space station (such as the ISS) has a much greater chance of long-term survival, as the crew can fix (very often with considerable creativity to overcome a lack of resources) very serious problems that would jeopardize the continued existence of a station if it happened to be unmanned at the time.
There’s plenty about the joys and problems of being in space. If being a glorified medical guinea pig doesn’t put you off the idea of being an astronaut, perhaps this will – apparently one consequence of weightlessness is that stomach gases do not rise to the gullet; instead they pass through the intestines and give rise to highly aromatic, intense flatulence! Imagine that smell waiting to great new arrivals when they open the airlock…. That’s generally not a problem gardeners on Earth have to deal with, unless they choose to feed their dinner guests with homegrown Jerusalem artichokes 😉
And so it turned out to be a surprisingly fascinating read, chock full of detailed information (some of which I skipped over), but eminently readable and it details a non-Western chapter of space exploration that we perhaps haven’t heard enough about. Along the way it allows us to read some of the early history of plants in space, providing a jumping off point for further research into those experiments.
Which means that it’s time for me to hand over to you to choose the next step of our adventure. Would you like to continue to delve into the history of of those early plant experiments, and learn more about the first plants in space? Or wander off down a tangent and look at what happens when you take honeybees into space? We know that bees are a critical part of Earth’s ecosystem, and they may be an essential feature of self-sustaining manned missions (to the Moon, or Mars), but how do they fly in microgravity? Or perhaps you’d like to come back to the present, and find out more about the possibility of using the Moon as a safe repository for our most precious treasures – including a lunar seed bank.
Have a think about which path you’d like our journey to take, and then cast your vote. I’ll count the votes on Monday evening and start working on the blog post you’ve chosen 🙂
*Update* And our first winner is Bees in space! Watch this space for a blog post on that topic in the next week or so, and then it will be time to pick again – so don’t worry if your favourite topic didn’t get picked this time, there’ll be other opportunities as our journey together unfolds.