30 years of Astrobotany in Annals of Botany

“In the newspapers I used to read about shuttles going up and down all the time, but it bothered me a little bit that I never saw in any scientific journal any results of anything that had ever come out of the experiments on the shuttle that were supposed to be so important.”

Richard Feynman – What Do You Care What Other People Think?

STS-3 Shuttle mission launching
STS-3 departs on its mission. Photo: NASA.

On 22 March 1982, at 11:00 local time, the STS-3 mission, manned by Lousma and Fullerton launched in the space shuttle Columbia. Over the next eight days the shuttle was a platform for a few plant science experiments. A year and a half later these experiments were the basis of most of an Annals of Botany supplement Experiments on Plants Grown in Space.

It’s not that surprising Richard Feynman hadn’t seen these results. It’s easy to forget what a difference electronic communications have made. This issue of Annals of Botany would not have been issued as a PDF. Anyone wanting to see the results would have to physically locate an issue at a local library, not just click – which made it difficult for the public to access. NASA would also be issuing paper releases, and the news was the next shuttle flight not the one several missions back. So some science of immense public interest was kept to a few specialists.

The supplement has been digitised, and with current papers Annals of Botany makes its papers free access a year after print publication. In this case the delay is around thirty years. Quite a few things have changed since then, so the first paper in the supplement is a useful primer. Status and Prospects by Halstead and Dutcher gives a sense of the state of play for botany in the early 1980s.

It’s easy to be accustomed to space flight, and most ISS launches are not inherently newsworthy. The space shuttle was the vehicle that started the West’s perception of space travel as a mundane event. Halstead and Dutcher looked forward to the prospect of regular and affordable spaceflight.

Hindsight comes from Paul et al. and their paper Fundamental Plant Biology Enabled by the Space Shuttle in AmJBot. They comment on how plant science changed on shuttle flights, eventually taking advantage of the long-term missions offered by the International Space Station. One of the features of their paper is they point out there’s more to botany in space than the effect of gravity. By eliminating gravity you can explore other tropisms. They give a couple of examples, you can test for phototropism obviously, by manipulating light. But they also point out that subtle effects like ionic gradients become visible, once you eliminate the effect of gravitropism.

Aside from plans to colonise Mars, basic science means that exploration of microgravity and extreme environments will continue to be growth areas in botany. Over this week, we’ll be looking at the papers in our Space Shuttle issue and the science that they inspired after publication. Posts will be going live daily.

Today’s Papers

Halstead T.W. & Dutcher F.R. (1984). Status and Prospects, Annals of Botany, 54 (supp3) 3-18.

Paul A.L., Wheeler R.M., Levine L.G. & Ferl R.J. (2013). Fundamental Plant Biology Enabled by The Space Shuttle, American Journal of Botany, 100 (1) 226-234. DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1200338