Space Exploration Critical for Research, Astronaut Tells Wheat Growers
Research and technology was a key theme at the 2001 Wheat Industry Conference, held recently in New Orleans. Keynote speaker Dr. Larry DeLucas, former space shuttle astronaut and director of the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering at the University of
Alabama, stressed the importance of how new research discoveries can be made in the unique environment of space, where even the growth of wheat plants has been studied.
DeLucas, who continues to serve on NASA’s Space Station Science Utilization and Advisory Subcommittee, explains that proteins are responsible for the biological functions that keep
humans—and diseases that affect us—alive. The same lack of gravity in space which alters body matter also slows the growth of various proteins, making them easier to study, and thus pinpoint ways to find cures for
diseases, or to improve plants. “Given how human cells can change (in space), I would not be surprised to see similar changes with plants,” he says.
He points out that NASA’s space program is more than space exploration, it’s research and technology that has resulted in improvements to our daily
lives: Satellites for cell phone usage; alloy used to make airplanes; lightweight, resistant firefighting uniforms and tiny heart-saving medical
devices are all a result of NASA’s space program. “Our nation invests $3.8 billion into the space program, but put into perspective, we spend $16 billion on cigarettes, and $24 billion on alcohol,” DeLucas says.
This is a photo of “super dwarf wheat,” grown in space. In 1996, the first crop of healthy super dwarf wheat plants grown through a complete life cycle in the microgravity of space aboard the Russian Space Station Mir were harvested in
“Project Greenhouse,” an experiment conducted cooperatively by NASA, Utah State University, Logan, UT; the Institute of Biomedical Problems Research Center in Moscow; and the Space
Research Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia.
Photo courtesy Dr. Weijia Zhou, University of Wisconsin.
“Harvest of this wheat on Mir represents the first time that an important agricultural crop and primary candidate for a future plant-based life support
system has successfully completed an entire life cycle in the space environment,” said Dr. David Bubenheim, project co-investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA, in a news release
when the announcement was made.
“The development of plant-based, regenerative life support systems is critical to sustaining a crew during long-duration missions such as Mars
exploration,” he continued. “Successful development of the wheat crop through all developmental phases, culminating in the harvest of seeds, demonstrates that the environment of space poses no obstacles to the
biological components of a regenerative life support system. This information is critical for the future application of these systems to recycle
wastes and provide a crew with water, air and food. This, in turn, makes the crew self-sufficient, thereby enabling the practical and economical exploration of space,” Bubenheim concluded.
A related “space wheat” experiment was conducted to determine the effect of the space environment, specifically microgravity on photosynthesis and metabolism of Super Dwarf wheat. The experiment was called
“Photosynthesis and Assimilation System Testing and Analysis,” abbreviated appropriately: PASTA.
More Science, Technology in Seeding
In one workshop at the recent Wheat Industry Conference, Steve Detrick,
senior sales and service representative from the John Deere Seeding Group, discussed seeding equipment issues, from bearings (always check openers
and pivot points for free rotation; seized bearings or those with too much play should be replaced) to cleaning and inspection (extended storage of
this equipment means pests and insects may either block seed tubes or cause a shaft to bind).
Detrick also stressed the importance of drill calibration. The seeding rate tables found in your operator’s manual, or on the drill hopper cover, are
based on a standard weight per bushel for various crops. Due to differences in varieties, the seed size and weight of wheat may vary from the standard 60 pounds per bushel. Seed metering systems are based on
volume displacement and thus, if one lot of seed varies in size and weight from another, two different amounts of seed will be metered if the drill
setting is not changed. Indeed, a recent field study has shown that individual seed metering/delivery units on drills can vary by more than 10% above and
below the target-seeding rate, which affects seed costs proportionately, according to the University of Kentucky Extension Service. For this reason,
metering systems should be calibrated for a seed size to plant a particular population per acre.
“More technology is being put into seed, so to maximize that input, you want to make sure you’re getting the plant population you’re looking for,” says Detrick.
John Deere dealers recently began marketing electronic population rate control device that allows producers to monitor seed flow from the tractor
cab. “You can monitor seed flow and with a toggle switch, you can increase or decrease the seed flow of product,” says Detrick. Air seeders already
have this capability, but the device will be useful for press drills and no-till drills. It can be used on John Deere tractor/drill combinations or most other competing brands.
Within two years, John Deere will have an electronic device commercially available that will enable even more precise seed placement with air
seeders. “It will allow variable rate capability—you’ll be able to change seeding and fertilizer rates on the go. You’ll be able to apply exactly what you need,” says Detrick.