Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth Friday afternoon with evidence that space agriculture is possible.
Touchdown marked the end of research into growing soybeans in space by an agricultural subsidiary of DuPont, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., and NASA’s Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics.
Soybeans are the world’s largest source of protein and provide 80% of US edible fat and oil, according to the United Soybean Board.
The returning crop proves that soybeans can be just as important to space exploration, as they were the first plants to go through a complete growth cycle in space — they germinated, flowered and produced new seedpods entirely aboard the International Space Station.
While advocates of space exploration can use the results to push for space colonization, DuPont’s short-term plans are more down to Earth. “Studying the effects of soybean plants grown in space will help us expand our knowledge of soybeans and facilitate continued improvement of soybean germplasm for farmers,” says Dr. Tom Corbin, a DuPont researcher on the project.
To that end, the next stage of the research involves analyzing the returned seeds to see if they have improved oil, protein, carbohydrates or secondary metabolites. Those that do could either become part of a selective breeding project or simply provide insights into improving the efficiency and profitability of soybean farmers.
But the 97-day growth research also provided important data on the effects of zero-gravity and other space elements on plant growth, and demonstrated that space crop production is possible for supporting long-term human missions.