Living in space is no longer the far-fetched sci-fi concept it once was. Humans have inhabited the International Space Station, living away from our planet, for stretches of up to six months. While a far cry from living years or perhaps a lifetime in space or on another planet, different nations – including China – continue to research the best ways to make other astrological bodies habitable.
What, exactly, makes a place habitable, though? Our fundamental needs for food, shelter, water and oxygen first come to mind. After that, we need to consider things like relationships, hobbies, work, and other mental health needs that play into what makes our everyday lives not only survivable but livable. The fundamental needs are complex enough to figure out in space, but when you add the psychological needs, it becomes even more difficult to cope with the idea of living off-planet.
It turns out that plants are a great bridge between both of those levels of need. Obviously, plants can produce food and recycle oxygen in a place where very little can be found. However, recent reports have shown that plants improve mood in humans as well. The act of caring for and tending to something gives one a sense of purpose. Even simply looking at plants has been shown to contribute to physical health, which in turn improves mental health. A study from 2010 found those who took walks in forests had overall lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, which directly affects stress in the body, compared to people who had taken walks in urban environments.
And that leads me to my next revelation. Once again, it would seem China is ahead of the curve when it comes to the use of plants in space. In 2019, the lunar rover Chang’e 4 contained cotton seeds that successfully germinated in space and the first plants sprouted on the moon. Though the success was short-lived, it was nonetheless a breakthrough. The harsh cold of the lunar nights eventually became too much for the hearty plant to endure, as the lunar rover had no source of heat for the otherwise controlled environment. Still, the initial achievement seems to imply that with work, the Chinese plans to build a lunar base before the United States will become a reality that both successfully sustain human life in space and on the Moon. Next stop, Mars. Unless the United States moves from debates on funding to astronauts on missions, China will continue to lead the way and one day may well control the galaxies.