Outdoors and Outer Space
Scientist Ray Wheeler is an expert on the benefits of plants for long-duration spaceflight.

Where do you work and what is your title?

Ray Wheeler
I work at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a plant physiologist.

Image to right: Ray Wheeler is a plant physiologist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ray Wheeler

What degree did you obtain?

I have a bachelor's degree in science/astronomy, a master's degree in plant science ecology and a doctorate in plant physiology.

What motivated you to pursue your career?

My graduate work involved studies of plant responses to gravity. I then continued postdoctoral work on the use of plants for life support in space, which led to an eventual job at Kennedy Space Center.

Briefly, tell about the life experiences that made it possible for you to work at NASA?

I think my family's interest in the outdoors and my involvement in Boy Scouts helped develop a strong personal interest in nature and the environment. In the meantime, I always enjoyed stargazing and astronomy, so perhaps the two lines of interest merged into "life sciences and ecological systems for space."

What was the most important experience that prepared you for your job?

My postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin. I continued similar research for perhaps the next 10 to 15 years into my professional career.

What's the coolest thing about your job?

It is the opportunity to work with interesting people, and to use the interesting and exciting capabilities that NASA offers to conduct research.

Ray Wheeler kneeling in front of containers of green, leafy lettuce
Image to right: Ray Wheeler works with lettuce plants as part of his research in the use of plants to support life in space. Credit: Ray Wheeler

Describe your role in plant research.

I was the former lead for crop research for NASA's Advanced Life Support Program, which is no longer being funded. I think most people accept the notion that plants will eventually be needed for sustained life-support systems in space travel, so we are hopeful the research will start up again. Most of the other space agencies around the world continue to conduct plant research for bioregenerative life-support, including the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in collaboration with the Institute for Environmental Sciences, the Chinese National Space Agency, the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Please comment on the difficulties of living and working in space.

I have never gone into space, but for short-duration missions the workload is quite hectic and adapting to the weightless environment would take a while. For future, longer-duration missions, the sense of being so far away from home (on Earth) might be difficult, as would the need to live in a relatively small, confined environment for such a long time.

Why do you think plant research is important to the success of space exploration?

Everyone, including NASA, recognizes that for long-duration missions in space, such as living permanently on the moon or Mars, plants and so-called bioregenerative life-support approaches will be needed to sustain the human travels. Plants would provide our only means for generating food continuously and, while they do this, they also supply oxygen, remove carbon dioxide and help purify wastewater into clean water. If the space colonies truly become autonomous, they will need plants.

Since plant growth will be an important part of space exploration in the future, plant scientists like Ray Wheeler are working today to learn what they need to know to make growing plants in space possible.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services
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