Three test tubes from the University of Florida accompanied British billionaire Richard Branson aboard Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceship Sunday.
The tubes, containing plants, were the mission’s only science experiment, which was funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
University of Florida researchers and professors of horticultural science Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl, who have studied plant gene expression for decades, are behind a study to look at how plants respond during the transition from Earth’s gravity to the microgravity of space.
“Plants are a really important part of human exploration and really allow us to be more than just tourists,” Paul said, referring to the potential for growing food on space missions.
The researchers said the study opens the door to shifting the culture of space research. It was the first suborbital study to be conducted with the researchers still involved.
A trained astronaut on the flight had the three vials with her in a customized pouch attached to the leg of her suit. From the launch site in New Mexico, Paul and Ferl activated identical control tubes at the same times as the flight tubes were activated.
“For us as scientists, one of the absolutely astounding things is to put humans back into the loop of decision-making and experimentation during a flight,” Ferl said. “Besides the science of what’s happening to the plants, this is also about our ability as a community to be able to do these types of experiments, any type of experiment. ... What we want to be able to do is create an environment, system and culture where scientists can go to space to do their experiments.”
Paul said she also hopes this opens the door to allow scientists to conduct their own experiments in space.
“We’re comfortable as a society with scientists going to other extreme environments,” she said.
The two will bring the test tubes back to Gainesville for further study.