Seeing the Plants' Point of View
Scientist Oscar Monje is helping NASA engineers better understand the physiology of plants so they can design plant growth chambers for space.
Where do you work and what is your title?
I work for Dynamac Corporation at Kennedy Space Center as a plant scientist.
Image to right: Oscar Monje is a plant scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Oscar Monje
What degree did you obtain?
I have a doctorate in plant science.
What motivated you to pursue your career?
I was involved in the NASA Get Away Special program developing a student-built payload at Utah State University. There I met my major professor, who was a plant physiologist funded by NASA. He thought my skills (electronics, programming, chemistry and math) would be useful for developing plant-based bioregenerative life support systems.
Briefly, tell about the life experiences that made it possible for you to work at NASA?
I worked and studied at a university funded by NASA, optimizing plant growth rates of wheat for minimizing a space farm. I worked on instrumentation flown in the Mir space station and worked with data collected in the Svet greenhouse. I helped in the design of the Lada greenhouse currently on the International Space Station. I came to Kennedy to work on the Photosynthesis Experiment and System Testing and Operation, or PESTO, flight experiment -- a 73-day-long plant spaceflight experiment on the station.
What was the most important experience that prepared you for your job?
Working on my own payload when a member of the GAS program at Utah State University. I learned what it takes to motivate yourself to design, build, test and fly a self-contained payload. I learned electronics, CAD drawing, safety requirements and many aspects other than the science part I wanted to accomplish with my experiment.
What's the coolest thing about your job?
It's always cutting-edge research that has many applications in space and on Earth. I haven't done the same thing every day for the last 20 years.
Describe your role in plant research.
I'm a plant physiologist that knows how to grow plants in microgravity. Thus, I can help engineers design plant growth chambers for space from the “plant” point of view. I can understand plant growth from the data collected by instrumentation, which is essential for conducting plant experiments in space on the International Space Station from a remote location on Earth.
Please comment on the difficulties of living and working in space.
Many biophysical and physical phenomena are different in space (i.e., hot air does not rise, water does not drain, et cetera) in ways that we are not accustomed to on Earth. This makes it difficult for people to adjust for the phenomena’s effects on living organisms growing in life support systems.
Why do you think plant research is important to the success of space exploration?
Because plants are a renewable source of food and oxygen, and they recycle water. We can't launch every bit of food for astronauts every day of every mission to every corner of the universe. It’s too expensive, so future astronauts being able to grow their own food is essential.
Because plant growth will be an important part of space exploration in the future, plant physiologists like Oscar Monje are working today to learn what they need to know to make growing plants in space possible.
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services