Space exploration is very much in vogue again in recent years thanks to the exploits of billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. But while their high-flying tourism-focused adventures may have grabbed the headlines of late, an active industry has been more quietly pressing on with experiments and projects that could have a huge impact on the future of humanity – both here on Earth and when we are eventually ready to head out and settle other worlds.
The International Space Station (ISS), for example, is currently home to around 200 experiments. These include studying the long-term impact of exposure to low-gravity environments to measuring carbon dioxide levels on Earth. A significant number of them are focused on food and agriculture – and the one reason for this is, once we do eventually leave this planet for settlements on the moon or even Mars, it would probably be useful if we knew how to grow food once we get there!
However, that isn’t the only reason. It’s quickly becoming apparent that even on Earth, we’re going to run into difficulties when it comes to feeding an ever-growing population, particularly when we take into account climate change and global warming. It’s hoped that experiments in space will lead to new developments and scientific breakthroughs that will help to keep us fed and healthy wherever we end up in the universe.
To discuss the progress that's being made, I was very excited to be joined for a webinar by both Chris Hadfield – a former commander of the ISS and one of the world’s most celebrated astronauts, as well as Ilan Sobel, CEO of Bioharvest Sciences. Bioharvest has developed proprietary methods of growing plant cells in bioreactors in a way that does not alter their molecular structure in order to create extracts that retain all of the health and wellness properties of the original plant. So far, they have created cellular matter from red grapes, olives, pomegranates, and even cannabis.
Hadfield started by telling me how having orbited the world around 2,600 times has given him a new perspective on the planet and the problems we are facing. During his 20-plus years career as an astronaut, he flew in space three times, piloted the space shuttle twice, helped to build two space stations, and engaged in 15 hours' worth of extra-vehicular spacewalking.
His belief is that the next decade of spacefaring will tell the story of the establishing of humanity’s first permanent off-planet settlements – on the moon – and perhaps even the beginning of the trek across “the huge ocean of space" between us and Mars - our closest planetary neighbor that may be able to sustain human life.
He tells me, “technologies like those that Bioharvest are creating, they’re going to be feeding us on that voyage.”
Hadfield began working with Bioharvest when the company became involved with a program called the Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC). Instigated by NASA and a number of other agencies, including the European Space Agency, DSFC aims to discover new technology-based solutions to the problems of feeding astronauts who are away from Earth for long periods of time. In doing so, it is also hoped it will uncover solutions to more terrestrial food-oriented challenges.
Hadfield says, "If [the world population] is going to peak out at 10 billion people, we can't just have agriculture like we had 6,000 years ago; we need more efficient methods. Not just genetically-modified organisms and fertilizers … here on Earth, we have an overwhelming need for better ways to grow food for all the people and to raise the standards of living."
So how will space help us to develop new methods of biotechnology and agriculture? Sobel tells me that one avenue is that the "microgravity environments" found on orbital space stations or, theoretically, on permanent off-planet settlements would enable plants to grow in different ways, which could create new utility values for them.
He says, “In the next five to 10 years, we’re going to have commercial space stations where companies will grow and manufacture different products in space … creating unique medicinal compositions then bringing them back to Earth to treat people.
“This is the new cycle that companies on the edge, from a though-leadership perspective and a technology perspective, are looking to leverage … the power of micro-gravity environments and bring the benefits back to Earth.”
His company’s first product is designed around what is known as the French Paradox – the apparently paradoxical fact that French people suffer comparatively low rates of certain heart diseases despite the fact that their diets are reportedly high in fats and cholesterol. This is thought to be down to antioxidants found in the skin cells of red grapes used in wine which is also consumed in relatively large amounts. Sobel tells me that his company has demonstrated that supplements created from grape cells that grow in bioreactors have the effect of increasing blood flow, therefore improving overall cardiovascular health. Bioharvest is now developing methods to create a whole range of secondary metabolites, which include polyphenols and phytochemicals under these conditions – enabling these essential and highly beneficial compounds to be created far more efficiently and economically than growing them as parts of crops.
Hadfield says, "Technologies like this are key … I'm confident that, when we're further away on the moon and beyond, we will have ways of producing food that is different from how we've done it for the last 6,000 years. And this is going to be one of them … you're going to go into the food production facility, and there will be a bioreactor in there producing the things we need to stay healthy."
You can watch my full conversation with astronaut Chris Hadfield and Bioharvest CEO Ilan Sobel here.