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We want to have everything open – say scientists behind Martian-like space agriculture

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‘Open research is more efficient, because you can see where other people had challenges, and where they have been successful’ – said Dr. Matthew Bamsey who researches using plants in long duration space missions. I am delighted to present the interview with him and Dr. Thomas Graham. These two are editing the topical issue of Open Agriculture on ‘Agriculture in Space‘. The Topical Issue is collaborating with the AgroSpace conference taking place May 26th – 27th 2016.

Witold Kieńć: Could you tell me a little bit about your work? What are you dealing with?

Thomas Graham: For the last 20 years I’ve been working on controlled environment plant production systems, including the use of these systems to provide life-support services to crews on long duration space exploration missions. For most of that time I’ve been at the University of Guelph in Canada, but I had the good fortune to secure a research fellowship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where I worked on methods for improving the volume utilization efficiency of crop production systems that may be developed for human space exploration missions (i.e., Mars & Moon).

Matthew Bamsey:
I was studying aerospace engineering and now I am focused on using plants in long duration space missions. Presently I am working at DLR, the German Aerospace Center, building an Antarctic greenhouse, that will be deployed to the German Antarctic Station, Neumayer III.

If I understand correctly, you are currently editing a special issue for Open Agriculture, which is devoted to the creation of extraterrestrial greenhouses, e.g. on Mars or on the Moon. Are you also aiming to explore more extreme environments?

TG: Yes, but to be precise: greenhouse is a sort of an umbrella term for plant production systems to support human life off Earth. The structures that we develop will not look like traditional greenhouses, rather they will be sophisticated controlled environment plant production facilities; but for common communication we still use this term as it best conveys the message.

For NASA, Mars is the current primary target for manned missions, but for ESA and the China it is the Moon. Regardless, no matter where we go we will need to take plants with us. So this is quite a universal spaceflight problem. To be honest, both Mars and the Moon would require very similar if not identical systems.

MB: We have to do first steps, which are the same wherever we are aiming to go. Cultivating plants in micro-gravity on the International Space Station, which is happening now is kind of such a first step. But we never know where this technology will take us, because it is designed to support human life in space in the long term and in a sustainable manner, so we may go on very long missions with crops. Plants also create psychological benefits for the crew, so they might be useful in shorter duration flights.

The Topical Issue is not limited to any destination or environment; if there is some aspect of crop production and human interaction with crops in space, then we want to hear about it.

MB: There are similarities between all systems of this kind, but probably it would be interesting to see in the Topical Issue how groups thinking of different destinations approach different problems.


If a crewed mission to Mars were scheduled for next year, would it be possible employ some techniques of space agriculture?

MB: Crewed missions do not require plants. We already have physical-chemical life support systems, that can sustain human life e.g. on the International Space Station for a long period. But the longer the mission is and the bigger the crew is, the more consumables it needs, so providing life support is more expensive and complicated. So when we think of a mission to Mars, which will last for several years, the biological life support systems, consisting of plants, become more important because it will be more difficult to provide resupply for the crew during this kind of mission. Initial Mars missions will probably not require plants. On the other hand, it is possible that even for short term missions plants will be used, to provide psychological benefits for the crew and to support physical-chemical systems. And they would be very similar systems to those that might be used in long term missions, it is only a matter of scale.

TG: We need both physical-chemical life support systems and biological life support systems. But over time the biological component will increase. Plants can provide astronauts with fresh fruit and vegetables that would be crucial in meeting nutritional needs during Mars exploration.

Let’s say that I am a student, who is interested in space agriculture. What choices should I make to enter the field?

Matthew and myself came from completely different directions. During my undergraduate studies I was a plant biology person and space wasn’t really on my radar. Matt was an aerospace engineer with a passion for space science. Now we both work on the same issues. So, to answer the question — if you have a background in agriculture or relevant engineering skills and a keen interest in space exploration then things will fall into place; especially if you go looking for it!

This is a very, very multidisciplinary field and there are really a lot of ways to enter it. We have a science side, we have a biology side, but there are also a lot of unsolved questions e.g. connected to the psychological side of space agriculture. There are countless questions that still need to be addressed. I think we really need people from all fields to come in.

What is the goal of the Topical Issue that you are editing?

TG: I think it is important to create a venue that is dedicated solely to the challenges and questions surrounding growing and interacting with crops in spaceflight environments. Having a special issue that pulls together reviews, commentaries, and current space agriculture research into one source will facilitate those looking to get up to speed on the the challenges and possibilities of space agriculture.

The previous year was exciting for space agriculture. Veggie Plant Growth System was working on the International Space Station, and the general public were enthusiastic about photos that came back to Earth and about vegetables that have been grown in space. And not only the general public, but also scientists are interested more in plants in space nowadays. I think it is great timing for the Topical Issue.


Open Agriculture is an open access journal. Do you think that open access journals can play a role in the development of your field?

TG: I am coming from a university setting in which I have incredible access to a wide breadth of journals; however, not everyone is in the university system and can freely access scientific information. I often get requests for references from people who simply cannot afford access to the information on their own. Open access can greatly aid in information dissemination and therefore it will play a role in the development of the space agriculture as well as any other field.

MB: In the ideal world we would like to have everything open! Open research is more efficient, because you can see where other people had challenges, and where they have been successful.

I also think that having this Topical Issue open access allows us to reach more people in our research community and outside of it.

TG: The point of science is to make the information available to be reviewed and consumed by the maximum number of your peers as well as lay audiences. We need transparency in science and open access should help us get there.

The other thing is that the Internet gets people used to getting information with just one click. And when you want to access a paper through the library system it is usually more than just one click. So having an open access paper make your information circulate easier and quicker. For some reason a couple of clicks make a difference these days.

Everything that is linked to space flights easily gets mass attention. Do you feel the advantages of it?

MB: Our community is focused on human space flight, on taking life to this extreme environment, which is I think even more exciting than robotic missions. Everyone can imagine himself looking through the eyes of an astronaut. And taking plants on crewed space missions is something which everyone can relate to.

The book and the movie “The Martian” together with the Veggie Plant Growth System currently operating on the International Space Station brought our field to the mainstream. “The Martian” was based largely on real science, which has shown to the general public that we can bring people to other planetary bodies and keep them alive and happy (not that being stranded on Mars is a happy situation as in the movie!). Friends and family that have seen the movie now say to me, “Oh, that is what you do!”.

Dr. Mike Dixon (University of Guelph) also has a long running program called Tomatosphere that brought space agriculture to the classroom. We send tomato seeds to the ISS or to other space-like environments and we bring them back and send them to classrooms. I believe the current number of classrooms participating every year is on the order of 20 000. Kids grow these space seeds and compare them to seeds that did not go to space; this is real space agriculture science brought to the classroom!

Will popularity among non-professionals bring more young researchers to your field?

We certainly hope so!

Thank you very much!

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  1. Excellent dialog….that resonates with Society’s strong interest in food production on Earth, because essentially Lunar and Martian food systems will come from Earth experiences and systems…those that are now, and that will in the future, complement field precision production agriculture with controlled environment agriculture, in places on Earth not yet achieved.

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