What I can do to help further humanity’s expansion into space

Instrumental to the dawn of man and the birth of modern civilization was the dawn of land-dwelling organisms – the first pioneers who stretched up from the ocean, past sandy shores, to cover the surface of the Earth. These organisms were the first plants, who adapted to thrive in the most extreme conditions, evolving to form complex and interdependent relationships both mutualistic and parasitic, and colonizing almost every surface of the Earth over four-hundred and twenty million years ago. The development of flowering plants, a distinct break in evolution from cones and spores, was crucial in the evolution of humans. After the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event, mammals came into prominence without their large avian and reptilian predators. A wide array of niches was left unfilled, leading to massive diversification among mammal species that shaped orders such as primates, who evolved to live on omnivorous fruit-heavy diets.

The evolution of human culture has always been dependent on plants. This dependency developed into interdependency, many fruits using primates like humans to spread seeds. However, the most important change in this relationship was the development of agriculture. Humans would care and grow plants and their offspring, leading to their migration to other corners of the earth, where they may disrupt the environment, often to the plant’s favor. In exchange, humans would eat their fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, or roots. The relationship evolved beyond gathering; instead, humans were actively nurturing plants to eat, a behavior rare and unseen in another primate species.

Innovations in agriculture soon led to innovations in human culture. The more agriculture developed, the easier it became to create permanent homes around now-sustainable food sources. The more free time humans had instead of gathering or moving after exhausting local food sources, the more they could create new technology and art – dances and stories that cemented each group’s respective traditions and culture. Plants became domesticated, relying on humanity for proper harvest and health, just as humans evolved to digest and gain the optimum amount of nutrients from the plants. Soon, monuments were erected and mythologies flourished as cities stood for hundreds of years, established by both man and plant.

The connection between humans and plants, which has existed for hundreds of thousands of years since humanity’s inception, has developed into a sort of bond. Though oftentimes lost in an increasingly industrial world, this bond feels intimate and sacred – a relationship that transcends location, that is felt deep within the heart of those who leave our atmosphere and stare down at our planet. It is seen, then, how dependent we are on our fellow creatures and how small our human problems are in comparison to our planet. From so far away, it’s easier to see how the homes we live in are shaped from the trunks of trees and how the countryside running along rivers is sectioned into farms that support both local and global populations.

When human eyes exceedingly turn toward the horizon, past the sky and into the stars, where we collectively dream of expansion and exploration, we must first recognize the steps that must be taken to make such a process capable. After we’ve managed travel to other planets, we must face the issue of colonization. Short-term colonization could be accomplished with made-ready-to-eat food, but a stable long-term colony cannot exist without agriculture in the same way a stable city cannot. The expense of sending food to a long-term colony would be high, as one-way missions to planets typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Likewise, the food could become compromised and inedible or be stolen, destroyed, or run out in unfortunate circumstances.

Agriculture is also an important part of the maintenance of morale in long-term colonies. Agriculture could provide a source of stability and a medium through which colonists could care for and nurture other beings whose success often rivals that of the colony or provides hope to the colony for their own success. Made-ready-to-eat meals also pale in comparison to the morale-boost of a meal with home-grown vegetables. While made-ready-to-eat meals do provide the necessary calories and nutrients for proper body functioning, the essential and supplementary vitamins provided through fresh vegetables and fruit add to quality-of-life and may provide the vitamins in a way that’s easier for the body to digest. The supplementary vitamins, as well, maintain not just standard health, but a greater quality of health that boosts happiness.

Interplanetary or intergalactic colonies could not function long-term without agriculture. Agriculture is the basis of stability, a sustainable food resource that provides the order and routine that allows for humans to expand and grow rather than just survive. In some ways, it is what provides for a species’ shift from animals to people. We must be capable of growing the domestic plants our bodies rely on for nutrients and self-sufficiency to survive and thrive in space. If we wish to complete other ventures, such as asteroid mining, we have to have long-standing colonies established. Deep-space mining expeditions could not be completed without a base of operations that is not Earth, which may be far away, but a location that would allow for multiple trips and justify the cost of the expedition. We could not expand into space, creating interplanetary economies and businesses without first creating long-standing colonies with a heavy basis on agriculture. Every advanced society is built on the foundation of a history of agricultural success and innovation.

This realization had truly dawned on me after reading Andy Weir’s The Martian, in which weeks later, as I flipped through a book about raising house plants, I wondered the applications of this knowledge in main character Mark Watney’s situation on a dangerous and rather uninhabitable planet. I pondered the steps a Mars colonist would need to take to develop a successful farm and how the theoretical science behind Watney’s potato farm rivaled that of actual methods NASA and other research organizations were developing for actual space agriculture. Inspired by my Peruvian roots and the traditional focus on the earth and farming of my culture and upbringing in the rural Southeast, I imagined how a colonist would need to use their knowledge about the bond between humans and plants. A colonist would need to know what plants might best fit a certain planet or its soil, or instead consider humidity and lightning or temperature and seasons. Knowledge and appreciation of plants is vital in such a situation, where humans act as the earliest humans did, establishing a new relationship and new path of evolution for these plants.

My academic focus centered on this idea of astrobiology and the applications of plant science and molecular biology in space. It became a passion to read research articles on the subject with endless interest, sitting in the quiet moments at my bus stop in the earliest hours of the morning learning about zinnia flowers blooming on the International Space Station or cotton seeds germinating on the moon. Since, my drive has been attaining such a position, working for a research organization like NASA as an astrobiologist. I aim to aid in the dawn of human colonization in space, which reflects, in its deepest core, the dawn of humanity itself, dependent on the pioneering plants that would first germinate and bloom outside of earth, who would develop interdependent relationships with humans that would allow for the creation of long-standing colonies, established by both man and plant.