Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Space Farming: Little Green Tendrils of Chaos

You can take it with you: Nigella damascena, a type of buttercup, germinated in a lab on the International Space Station. Image Source: Wiki.

When we depart for the Final Frontier, we will have to become very good at farming in zero gravity and on other worlds. Anyone who has tried the most basic seed planting and coaxed a plant to maturity under ideal earthly conditions may start to appreciate what a daunting task that is. Even in today's era of Frankenfoods, plants don't care what humans think they should be or do. If you try to force plants or their environment to run counter to the laws they expect to follow, they simply die. If scientists are able to force plants in the short term via genetic modification to satisfy artificial human fads and demands, there will always be a correction in the environment, somewhere, that will decimate the plan. Period. For thousands of years, people have tried to play god with plants. Even when they achieve some success, that never become god. Biology will never be fully instrumentalized by humans, and it's a good thing too. It is that scary unknown factor in agriculture which brings a host of problems to space colonization.

On 12 March 2015, NASA confirmed via Hubble's observations that Jupiter's moon Ganymede has a huge water ocean under an ice crust, which could mean that it harbours life. Image Souce: Sci Tech Daily.

Experts claim that the only way for humanity to survive over the long term is that we clear that hurdle in the future. According to Stephen Hawking, whatever problems we may have down here on earth, a bigger one trumps them all. Our future lies in the stars, he argues, and humanity must eventually abandon this planet or face extinction. Does God play dice he asks, paraphrasing Einstein? Yes, He does, Hawking argues, asserting that there is an underlying range of chaotic variability, an unpredictability, to everything. Hawking contradicts Einstein's insistence that there had to be an underlying order in everything which we could not yet grasp. Despite Hawking's faith that the future cannot be predicted, he is certain humankind must go through a cataclysmic bottleneck, a test of survival, a possible extinction event. Over the next thousand years, space exploration must be our inevitable future. There is no wiggle room on this, he concludes, due to global warming, nuclear annihilation, or a genetically-engineered virus.

Cultural expectations of transcendent Singularity (which include a faith in space colonization) continue the very mechanistic mentality, a 19th century positivism, which quantum physicists criticize. Humans-as-machines is a very popular idea now, and culturally speaking, it is big, but not that deep. Humans are now addicted to, and obsessed by, their species' new computing power. Pause to observe the stunning fact that 40 per cent of the world's population got a new heroin habit over the past 20 years that was socially acceptable, economically profitable (if also economically tumultuous), politically unstable, and governmentally dubious. Then imagine that the most hard core tech addicts insist that we must lose ourselves in the addiction, becoming more and more like the technological objects of our adoration.

In fact, successful space exploration might be achieved only by an antithetical stance, a renewal of the organic, in a move that counters the seductive, semi-sexual love affair with computer gadgetry. In this post, I noted how popular ideas in the 1920s and 1930s shaped scientists' early conceptions of dark matter. In cultural terms, today's Singularity and quantum aficionados are 1920s' and 1930s' revivalists.

That is the kind of point that confirms that culture and science are not contending opposites; instead, they make an unexpected pair of yoked oxen. How scientists interpret and conceptualize their findings is heavily influenced by their cultural values, about which they are rarely objective or intensively schooled. This is why science fiction author Charlie Stross argued that space colonization is not a story about extending technology, despite all the technical trappings of the exercise. It is a story, as Frank Herbert knew well, about our relationship with the environment. And that relationship, given our psychology, almost always is expressed mystically and philosophically through the expansion and transformation of religion; Stross pondered some of this:
I'm going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn't unfamiliar; domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O'Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore. And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. "We can't afford to keep all our eggs in one basket" isn't so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality.
A response to that post, quoted at the Daily Galaxy, dismissed these culturally-derived warnings because transhumanists believe we will meld with machines and morph into something non-human, or superhuman, or post-human:
[Stross doesn't take] into account the possibility of post-Singularity, Drexlerian, Kardashev Type II civilizations. Essentially, we're talking about post-scarcity civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology, radically advanced materials, artificial superintelligence, and access to most of the energy available in the solar system. "Stross also too easily dismisses how machine intelligences, uploaded entities and AGI will impact on how space could be colonized. He speculates about biological humans being sent from solar system to solar system, and complains of the psychological and social hardships that could be inflicted on an individual or crew. He even speculates about the presence of extraterrestrial pathogens that undoubtedly awaits our daring explorers. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Biological humans will have no role to play in space. Instead, this work will be done by robots and quite possibly cyborgs.
That is such a 2000s' thing to say. Super-this, nano-that.  In 2005, Ray Kurzweil maintained in The Singularity is Near that we could interface with our technology, the way computers interface with each other, and in so doing we could transcend our biology. It was a fashionable, and now dated, thing to assume. The post-Singularity hypothesis tells you more about 2005 than it does about 2500.

Part of that hypothesis suggests that our addiction to computers is reaching blind adoration, and extends to the assumption that they are, or will be, smarter than we are. We love them so, such that we will either join with them (a typical, unreflective psycho-sexual assumption), and/or they will out-survive us. This is exactly the kind of thing an addict would say about his or her drug: it's stronger than I am; it's destroying me in the long term; but I love it anyway in the short term because it enhances my capabilities. The Daily Galaxy:
In a futuristic mode similar to Hawking, both Steven Dick, chief NASA historian and Carnegie-Mellon robotics pundit, Hans Moravec, believe that human biological evolution is but a passing phase: the future of mankind will be as vastly evolved sentient machines capable of self-replicating and exploring the farthest reaches of the Universe programmed with instructions on how to recreate earth life and humans to target stars. Dick believes that if there is a flaw in the logic of the Fermi Paradox, and extraterrestrials are a natural outcome of cosmic evolution, then cultural evolution may have resulted in a post-biological universe in which machines are the predominant intelligence.
There is so much blind confidence in the secular window dressing around science and technology, that there is no warning that Millennial technological prophets employ the language of cult leaders. They speak the high-priestly language of a sacred mentality with religious fervour, and remain unaware of what they are actually doing, because they are scientists. They predict the future, while in the same breath admit that science tells them that the future cannot be predicted.

Eco horror from John Wyndham: alien trees might be triffid-like on planets in binary, two-sun systems. Image Source: Passenger Films.

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #1.

Image Source.
Will the techno-rapture break down over space farming, when the plants remind us about our bottom line dependence on the environment? That is the final cultural pre-condition. We breathe air. We drink water. And despite our love affair with our shiny tools, we need the other earthly organisms which have evolved alongside us. What will the galaxy gurus do when the plants refuse to grow, or start to die, or grow tendrils 12 feet long so that they can snag and eat the colonists?

What if, in the wilds of space, space colonies and spaceships, plants can survive better than we can, arise to occupy a superior evolutionary niche to do so, and eventually overthrow and destroy us? They are only tamed here on earth because terran conditions allow us to be dominant. Space colony die-hards forget that humans evolved to a dominant position out of, and within, this earthly ecosystem, and no other. Once humankind leaves this planet with other terran species, to interact in long-haul spacecraft and space colony ecosystems, there are no guarantees that humans will dominate those systems. Even with humans supported by the technology they developed, plants may not remain their silent slaves. And this is before animal husbandry comes into the mix.

In a related vein, Mars One - the plan to send colonists on a one way trip to Mars by 2027, aka the final apex of reality television - came under harsh criticism this week. Their candidate selection practices and media entertainment fund-raising took a bashing. Critics dismiss Mars One as a pyramid scheme, even though that is only symptomatic of a more pressing problem. The reason private companies are taking over space exploration is because of politics. For years in the United States, a bizarre scenario has unfolded in which global warming has been pitted politically against space explorationObama's government slashed NASA's budget and money for other Big Science projects, which meant that other countries are now challenging or outcompeting America in these fields. Under these conditions, private companies will merge commercial capitalism with space aspirations and exploration technology. This week, Mars One's technological feasibility critics came through the loudest because a 2014 MIT study declared that Mars One's colonists' first wheat crop would blow their life support systems.

An independent MIT study from October 2014 concluded that the maturation of Mars One colonists' wheat crops would blow their life support systems by creating an overabundance of oxygen. Image Source: Extreme Tech.

Agriculture adds an element of the universe's chaos into any plan for survival in space and space colonies. This is the chaos whose metrics physicists like Hawking constantly seek and which eludes them. This is the chaos which makes them admit that they cannot predict the future, right at the moment when technology dangles a future in front of them that they want to believe (rather than prove). This agricultural element of the unseen, of perceptual error, of the unknowable, confirms that space farming would constantly remind us of our essential humanity, right when space exploration threatened to dehumanize its technologists and engineers. It is organic chaos, culminating in our unpredictable relationship with the unwieldy environment and other organisms which may have the last laugh, which reminds us how fragile we are and that we must colonize the stars with humility. Luke, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was raised as a farmer. It's no wonder why George Lucas did that. This is why, this week, the Mars One project came under fire around the question at the heart of all human civilizations: not media, not money, but agriculture.

An earlier post on HOTTC discussed the film, Silent Running (1972), in which the 1970s' back-to-the-land movement met the 1970s' space opera. You can hear Joan Baez's performance for the film's folksy soundtrack below the jump. Will the calls for space colonization overlap with the Millennial back-to-the land movement? So far, they haven't. Below the jump, see a selection of plants which have been planted on the International Space Station, and which plants are planned for future greenhouses on the moon and Mars. Several foods have been tested on the ISS, including the first bagels in space.

"Plant growth chambers, seeds and watering devices that made up part of an experiment flown to the space station during the STS-118 space shuttle mission [in 2007]. The seeds were later returned to Earth and grown within lunar growth chambers designed by students." Image Source: NASA via Phys.org.

Joan Baez singing Rejoice in the Sun from Silent Running (1972). Video Source: Youtube.

A tube of borscht soup, produced in Estonia for the Soviet space program. Image Source: Wiki.

Supper on the Space Shuttle. Image Source: Wiki.

Space food processing. Video Source: Youtube.

Space Foods

You never know what astronauts will do when they are hungry. In 1965, the crew of the Gemini 3 mission sneaked a corned beef sandwich onto their spacecraft, the Molly Brown. Sometimes, food travels from space to earth: the American powdered orange drink, Tang, became popular with consumers after it was used on space missions starting in 1959. In space, astronauts' senses of smell and taste are reduced and their food preferences sometimes differ from their tastes on earth. The first foods consumed in space were paté and chocolate. A current favourite is shrimp cocktail. National space agencies develop distinct menus for their astronauts. For example, from 2009 to 2011, the Canadian Space Agency offered 35 national specialty meal items for its astronauts manufactured by Canadian companies. NASA space food technologists emphasize 'keeping the astronauts happy.' They don't say it in interviews, but food taste and variety are critical for astronauts' sanity: menu designers seem painfully aware, possibly from equally painful earlier experiences, that food is a central component of psychological well-being.

"Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin plays with his food on the International Space Station. Image uploaded Nov. 27, 2013." Image Source: Space.com.

"NASA astronaut Loren Shriver eats M&M's candy in weightlessness aboard the space shuttle Atlantis during the STS-46 mission in 1992." Image Source: Space.com.

"Shuttle-themed M&M's: Melts in your mouth, not at your final space shuttle launch. These M&M candies were presented to members of the final launch team and astronaut crew for NASA's STS-135 mission in July 2011." Image Source: Space.com.

Coca-Cola (1985): "Astronaut Anthony W. England, mission specialist, drinks from a special carbonated beverage dispenser labeled Coke while floating in the middeck area of the shuttle Challenger during the STS-51F mission in 1985." The dispenser had its own straw: "Coca-Cola has flown on ... missions in a specially designed dispenser that utilizes BioServe Space Technologies hardware used for biochemical experiments." Image Source: Space.com.

The first bagels in space came from Fairmount Bakery, Montreal, Quebec, Canada (2008). Image Source: Serious Eats.

Sushi: "In a live interview with Japan's Fuji TV, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut and Expedition 22 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi demonstrates his love for cooking aboard the International Space Station with the first hand-rolled sushi in space (with salmon)." Video Source: Youtube.

First space sushi (2010): "Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi proudly displays his space sushi, the first hand-rolled sushi in space, which he made on Feb. 24, 2010 during a televised interview with Fuji TV." Image Source: Space.com.

Agriculture on the International Space Station, Space Shuttles, Other Spacecraft

Space farming is in its earliest stages. Astronauts have conducted low- and zero-gravity plant cultivation experiments. A 2010 ISS experiment confirmed that plants grow without gravity just as they do on earth, that is, with their roots spreading into soil, and leaves seeking light and carbon dioxide. Plant geneticist Anna-Lisa Paul of the University of Florida in Gainesville co-authored the 2012 study on the topic and remarked:
"features of plant growth we thought were a result of gravity acting on plant cells and organs do not actually require gravity." ... Grown on a nutrient-rich gel in clear petri plates, the space flowers showed familiar root growth patterns such as 'skewing,' where roots slant progressively as they branch out.

"When we saw the first pictures come back from orbit and saw that we had most of the skewing phenomenon we were quite surprised," Paul said.

Researchers have always thought that skewing was the result of gravity's effects on how the root tip interacts with the surfaces it encounters as it grows, she added. But Paul and [her co-author] Ferl suspect that in the absence of gravity, other cues take over that enable the plant to direct its roots away from the seed and light-seeking shoot. Those cues could include moisture, nutrients, and light avoidance.

"Bottom line is that although plants 'know' that they are in a novel environment, they ultimately do just fine," Paul said. The finding further boosts the prospect of cultivating food plants in space and, eventually, on other planets."
In April 2014, the SpaceX-3 ISS resupply mission brought special pillows to the spacecraft, on which astronauts could start growing fresh lettuce for their own consumption.

"This dwarf wheat was grown in space aboard the Mir space station." Image Source: Space.com

A plant growth chamber from STS 118, 2007 space shuttle mission: "Two plant growth chambers were flown to the International Space Station on the ... mission. Once transferred to the space station, astronaut Clay Anderson grew cinnamon basil in one chamber and lettuce in the second." Image Source: NASA.

"Red LED lights illuminate potato plants in a NASA study on growing food in space." Image Source: Wiki.

The Moon Farming Experiment (2015) and Farming on Mars (2021)

In 2015, NASA plans to grow plants on the moon in a lab carted by the Moon Express lander; the project is a privately-funded initiative supported by Google. The experiment will test whether plants can germinate in special containers on the lunar surface. The lander lab will try to grow turnips (10 seeds), basil (10 seeds) and Arabidopsis aka rockcress (100 seeds), a relative of mustard and cabbage, the first plant to have its full genome sequenced. The agricultural experiment for this unmanned lunar flight will run automatically:
[A]fter landing, water will be added to the seeds in the module—a trigger would release a small reservoir of water wetting filter paper and initiating germination of the seeds. Air in the sealed container would be adequate for more than five days of growth. Their growth will be monitored for five to ten days and compared to Earth-based controls. The seedlings would be photographed at intervals. According to NASA, "We would use the natural sunlight on the moon as the source of illumination for plant germination as a first ISRU (in situ resource utilization) demonstration." 
NASA believes the effort will yield returns on two fronts, knowledge about plants and broader knowledge about life's chances on the moon. The information about the plants may help NASA better address the question if humans can live and work on the moon. In the words of NASA: "Can humans live and work on the moon? Not just visit for a few days but stay for decades? A first step in long term presence is to send plants. As seedlings, they can be as sensitive as humans to environmental conditions, sometimes even more so. They carry genetic material that can be damaged by radiation as can that of humans. They can test the lunar environment for us acting as a 'canary in a coal mine.'"
Speaking as someone whose flourishing big basil plant died in a warm spot by the window over the winter, I wish them luck. Mind you, in this case, their basil only has to last a week.

In 2021, NASA plans to build auto-run greenhouses on Mars and is currently studying the logistics around 3-D printed construction and reduced atmospheric horticulture. According to Tech Times, this experiment is meant to prepare the way for Mars human missions in the late 2020s:
The project would use the same clear case used for the cheap 10cm-cube satellites called "CubeSat" box, which would hold Earth air and roughly 200 seeds of Arabidopsis or the small flowering rockcress plants related to cabbage and mustard commonly used in scientific research. Though plants on Mars will be treated like the normal plants here on Earth (they would receive water upon arrival and would be allowed grow for around two weeks), they would not be tended by the next Mars rover, unlike any human would do for his or her garden. No digging of holes will be involved nor even sowing seeds in the Red Planet's soil. The whole experiment, according to the team led by another Ames scientist Chris McKay, would be "self-contained," meaning it would eliminate the chances of Earth life escaping and set free on Mars' soils. Smith, who has conducted numerous research in astrobiology and life in extreme environments, is in high hopes that the experiment would give a glimpse on how Earth life would survive in Mars' high radiation levels, not to mention the low gravity that is 62 percent lower than our planet.
Plants on the moon, 2015: "The Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team is constructing a small technology demonstration unit (illustrated right) to study germination of plants (mock-up pictured left) in lunar gravity and radiation on the moon. The experiment will hint at whether humans could one day live there." Image Source: Daily Mail.

"Plant life is bound to arrive in the Red Planet in early 2021, signaling the advent of a yet another milestone in space exploration. Pictured here ultra-high tech pods known as Le Petit Prince designed in 2009 made to care for plants on Mars. Fast forward to 2014, experts at NASA say the MPX experiment is set to provide another 'landmark moment' for humanity." Image Source: Martin Miklica via Tech Times.

Caption for the above image: "The proposal is just one of many sophisticated space exploration blueprint developed for future colonization of another planet. In 2009, Electrolux held a contest called Electrolux Design Lab and one of the finalists is the robotic greenhouse for Mars named Le Petit Prince

Conceptualized by Martin Miklica of Brno University of Technology in Czech Republic, the ultra-futuristic pod has a glass greenhouse fixed atop that caters to a single plant, which is nurtured by the hydroponic solution enclosed in the pod. With the help of its four claw-like legs and a camera eye, the machine looks for the best place for the plant to develop."

Planned 2020 Martian seedling cultivation. Image Source: Space.com.

NASA's planned Mars mission for 2020 includes oxygen generating equipment and will seek signs of former Martian life. Video Source: Youtube.

Aims of NASA's 2020 mission explore Mars having formerly harboured life and whether it can do so in the future. This mission is meant to pave the way for human arrivals on Mars planned by NASA in the 2030s. Video Source: Youtube.


  1. "What if, in the wilds of space, space colonies and spaceships, plants can survive better than we can, arise to occupy a superior evolutionary niche to do so, and eventually overthrow and destroy us?"

    Hah! I knew it! That's what plants have been patiently waiting for all along. They're waiting till we bring them into space before they exact their revenge!

    Ah well, that's karma, baby.

    PS Great post!

    1. I know, the triffid element hit me as I was researching this post. It's the Achilles heel blind spot of all these big tech-centric projects. We will remain undisputed masters of all we survey, particularly because we now have iPhones. Oh really? If anything, over-dependence on technology would exacerbate the blind spot, seen in the religious thinking around tech, and lead to humans becoming less adept at survival in the wilds of space than other terran species they bring with them. Just imagine what other animals in space might do to their human masters in a long haul flight to Proxima Centauri.