On 10th June, thousands of scientists worldwide went on strike, putting their research activities on hold for a day to reflect and take action on systemic inequalities in science. #ShutDownStem was part of the wider Black Lives Matter protests, forcing us to take a long, hard look at how systemic racism affects people of colour.

This has become a time to showcase and promote the work of Black people, whether they are artists, writers, cooks or scientists. One post I saw contained a link to a PDF file documenting NASA’s African American astronauts, and I thought it would be fun to find out whether any of them had the opportunity to become space gardeners. It’s going to take me a while to go through them all.

The list is ordered alphabetically by surname, so first up is Michael P. Anderson. Michael became an astronaut in December 1994 and spent more than 24 days in space on two space shuttle missions. He was a mission specialist on STS-89. Launched on 22 January 1998, space shuttle Endeavour completed the eighth Shuttle-to-Mir Space Station docking mission, delivering scientific equipment, logistical hardware, and water. This was also the fifth and final exchange of a US astronaut, dropping off Andy Thomas and bringing David Wolf back to Earth.

From what I have been able to learn, there were two astrobotany experiments onboard, and I know that Michael worked with both of them.

Astronaut Michael P. Anderson, STS-89 mission specialist, works with the Closed Equilibrated Biological Aquatic System (CEBAS). Photo credit: NASA

The CEBAS (Closed Equilibrated Biological Aquatic System) was a freshwater habitat that aimed to be a self-stabilising, artificial ecosystem for use in space and underground. It was based on prototypes of aquatic systems of different sizes developed and built at the CEBAS Center of Excellence at the University of Bochum in Germany. 

Tests on the ground demonstrated the ecological stability of a biological system consisting of swordtail fish (Xiphophorus helleri), water snails (Biomphalaria glabrata), and microorganisms as consumers as well as hornweed plants (Ceratophyllum demersum) and microalgae as producers. 

The CEBAS MINI-MODULE went into space again on the STS-90 (NEUROLAB) mission. Its goal was to enable “scientists to conduct various gravity-related experiments in the areas of zoology, botany and developmental biology, as well as in interdisciplinary areas such as scientific research on artificial ecosystems.”

STS-89 Mission Specialist Michael Anderson works with three payloads. Includes a view of the Microgravity Plant Nutrient Experiment (MPNE). Image credit: NASA

The Microgravity Plant Nutrient Experiment (MPNE) tested a porous tube nutrient delivery technology to support plant growth in space. Launched with a dry nutrient delivery system and wheat seeds packed on germination paper, the plan was for the MPNE experiment to be activated on flight day four, initiating germination of the seeds.

A closed-loop feedback control system maintained the proper amount of nutrient solution on the surface of the porous tubes. MPNE contained enough nutrient solution to maintain healthy plant growth for seven days. The crew would have monitored the experiment at regular intervals.

After several days of joint activities between NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts in Earth orbit, the space shuttle Endeavour’s crew recorded a series of 35mm and 70mm “fly-around” survey photos of Russia’s Mir Space Station. Earth’s horizon serves as the backdrop for this 35mm scene. Photo credit: NASA

STS-89 landed safely on 31 January 1998. Sadly, Michael’s second mission was STS-107 in February 2003, in which space shuttle Columbia was destroyed on re-entry, with the loss of all crew members.

STS-89 Mission Specialist Michael Anderson smiles as he completes the donning of his launch/entry suit in the Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building. Image credit: NASA


Closed Equilibrated Biological Aquatic System (CEBAS), NASA Life Sciences Archive
KSC Release No. 220-97
Space Shuttle Mission STS-89 Press Kit
Header image: Anderson in 1995, via Wikipedia.