A Case for Durational Research: Space Plants Co-Investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul

Robert Ferl_and Anna-Lisa Paul (Credit: NASA)

NASA Flight Opportunities Program Q&A

University of Florida-Gainesville co-investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul are no strangers to suborbital research. They’ve been conducting plant research in microgravity since the late 1990s—first on the Space Shuttle and then on the International Space Station (ISS) and parabolic flights, many of which have been facilitated by Flight Opportunities.

More recently, the pair have begun flying their “space plants” (Arabidopsis thaliana) on rockets, including Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard. We spoke with Ferl and Paul about how they have approached their long-duration research to lead to successful, iterative investigations on multiple flights. 

What approach did you take on your early flights to set yourselves up for success?

We started with a lot of project development, hardware development, and preflight testing before we ever flew our experiments. That was back in the ’90s, and what we were looking at then was the notion of how organisms—in our case, plants—behave on the ground and then how they behave in space. And all of our preflight work helped us be successful in capturing data about how those plants responded during flight. What we didn’t know was what happened in the transition between the ground and space.

How did you design your experiments to start looking at that transition point? 

Parabolic flights gave us 30-second windows into what was happening in the transition to spaceflight. But to capture it, we didn’t just look at the part of the parabola where you achieve true 0 g. We looked at the whole thing, from the bottom of the parabola to the top, in order to get a brief window into that transition period. Now, with vehicles like New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, we can get longer periods of microgravity and collect even more data during that transition.

Have you encountered any challenges in moving beyond parabolic flights to rockets? 

Yes, rockets definitely present a unique type of environment. We’re aiming to image metabolic changes inside plant cells that happen, potentially, very rapidly and at a very low signal. Think about how you see the flickering of a candle in a room—you want to make sure you’re looking in the right place at the right time to capture that flicker. In our case, it’s the signal or image. Then imagine that flicker on a rocket with intense vibration. Things get very complicated very quickly. So we had to tweak our cameras to be held stable as they were being shot up in the rocket. That’s all trial and error that you need to be prepared for. The ability to test, fail, and then retest—which is a hallmark of Flight Opportunities—only becomes valuable when you make intelligent decisions after one test and then apply them to the next. 

Your research is more fundamental than, say, a niche technology for a specific mission. How has this impacted the way you work?

We’ve put an incredible amount of personal and laboratory time into this project that, while we had faith in it, we had no idea whether it would actually produce anything of value. When money is tight and productivity is highly valued, making what is literally a flying leap into unknown territory at the expense of something else is a pretty significant risk—but one we think is well worth taking. We brought down that risk by taking an incremental approach with all of the parabolic flights that we’ve had the opportunity to collect data on. And the work we did on the ISS brought down the risk of entering this current rocket phase by taking instrumentation that was on the ISS and adapting it to the suborbital realm. So in other words, we didn’t have to reinvent everything from scratch.

Are there any other professional or research tactics that have helped you be successful that you’d like to pass on to other investigators

Absolutely. One of them is building a strong set of relationships with the folks at NASA—understanding their needs, the research questions they have, and where your interests and capabilities overlap. In our case, that was Kennedy Space Center in particular. They allowed us to borrow elements of technology that were originally developed for the Space Shuttle and ISS and adapt them for cameras and imaging hardware that we’ve put into parabolic and suborbital flights. Kennedy also loaned us middeck lockers and racks to use on parabolic flights and Virgin Galactic’s vehicle. And in turn we’re helping to answer next-generation imaging questions on the ISS while developing fundamental research questions that have a big impact on long-term human exploration. This is not trivial. Relationship building, trust, and a flow of expertise have helped us along the way.

University of Florida Investigators Receive Grant for New Collaboration

Flight Opportunities–supported co-investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul from the University of Florida-Gainesville have received NASA funding to use their fluorescent imaging hardware on a biological sciences experiment from the University of Wisconsin. The collaboration is funded by NASA’s Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications through a Research Opportunities in Space Biology (ROSBio) award. The experiment is funded for one test flight on a commercial vehicle, slated for later this year.