Plants May Help Maintain Mental Health of Astronauts

Research has shown that gardening or even just the presence of plants has a positive psychological effect on people, making them happier and more social. Now, in a new review published in the journal Open Agriculture, researchers at the University of Florida assert that plants may play a key role in maintaining the mental well-being of space crews.

Long periods of space travel can lead to sleep problems, reduced energy, inattentiveness, difficulty in problem-solving, and even memory loss. It can also increase hostility, impulsivity and, despite the danger and excitement, it can be quite boring.

Ever since people started going into outer space, researchers have taken these mission opportunities to test whether plants can survive in a zero-gravity atmosphere. While scientific curiosity was one reason for sending plants into space, it was also realized how cost effective and healthier it would be to grow fresh fruits and vegetables on demand during long space missions, rather than to rely on processed foods.

Once it was confirmed that plants could survive in zero gravity situations, more experiments were conducted to see if they could be used in other ways, such as for purifying the air inside a spacecraft. Plants consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen and clean the air of pollutants.

Now in the paper entitled “Gardening for Therapeutic People-Plant Interactions during Long-Duration Space Missions,” researchers Raymond Odeh and Charles L. Guy from the University of Florida wrote a review of the existing literature on plant-people interactions to find that plants may play a major role in the mental health of astronauts.

In their research, the authors uncovered how humans have a tendency to look for natural life, a behavior referred to as the “biophilia hypothesis,” which might help to explain why space travel can be so dangerous for the human psyche.

The researchers conclude that what applies to humans on Earth also applies to astronauts in space. Plants can help reduce both social and cognitive problems related to space travel, and suggest that plants should be part of the design of future space missions for both nutritional and psychological reasons.

“A review of this topic for space research is long overdue, and should provide a strong argument to systems analysts and biomedical researchers to look more closely at the ‘other’ contributions of plants to exploration of space,” said Dr. Raymond Wheeler, a senior scientist for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center.

“I highly recommend this paper for anyone who has an interest in human space travel, and the notion of using plants for bioregenerative life support.”

Source: De Gruyter