Class Act: Kai Rasmussen — ‘Let’s Grow Plants in Space’

Kai Rasmussen BSx’18 spends much of his time studying how plants react to being in outer space. For many of his friends, this calls to mind Mark Watney, the protagonist in the novel-turned-movie The Martian, who devised a way to grow potatoes in a failing space station on the Red Planet’s surface. And Rasmussen agrees. So he wrote a song about it.

Visit Rasmussen’s SoundCloud web page and you’ll find “Young Mark Watney,” an original composition filled with references to the emerging (but still relatively obscure) field of astrobotany. It’s punctuated by a simple chorus that underscores his mission: “Let’s grow plants in space.” For Rasmussen, a junior majoring in biology, this musical venture is just one way he hopes to engage the public in his passion.

Rasmussen’s interest in astrobotany was ignited after taking a class with UW–Madison botany professor Simon Gilroy and learning about his research in the field. Rasmussen soon began working in Gilroy’s lab, where he was offered funding by literal rocket scientists.

“There was just no way I could pass up the opportunity to work on something funded by NASA,” Rasmussen says.

The lab’s research involves mimicking spaceflight using an in-house test structure, but it also integrates the real thing. In 2014 and late 2017, the Gilroy lab sent plants to the International Space Station, and the genetic data beamed back to Earth revealed how enzymes in the plants were affected by the journey.

Scientists have knocked down numerous long-standing barriers to sustainable spaceflight, but many remain. Botany and horticulture systems are critical components of life on Earth, but they evolved over billions of years. Creating similar systems from scratch in space requires some creative solutions.

Cue forward thinkers like Rasmussen.

“We don’t want to send supplies from Earth every time our astronauts need to eat,” he says. “We want them to have self-sustaining systems that provide them with food [and] water.”

But that’s a long-term project. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has created an astrobotany website and T-shirt — all in an effort to bring the science of space plants back down to Earth.