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On Monday morning, a SpaceX cargo capsule docked with the International Space Station after a two-day journey to orbit. On board the craft were supplies for the astronauts and a bevy of science experiments, including four “organs on a chip” designed to replicate human organs in miniature and an experiment to study the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While sending science experiments into orbit is par for the course for NASA, this cargo run to the space station also carried a more unusual passenger: a pound of hemp seeds.
This marks the first time that anything even remotely cannabis-related has been sent to space.
Although astronauts are prohibited from smoking cannabis, this mission wasn’t about catching a buzz. Instead, it’s the first step toward understanding how low gravity conditions affect hemp biology, which could lead to new applications for hemp on Earth.
Hemp is a type of cannabis that technically belongs to the sativa family and is recognizable for its skinny leaves that are concentrated near the top of the plant. Unlike marijuana, it lacks much in the way of THC; instead, it is rich in cannabidiol, better known as CBD. This means that if you smoke it, you won’t get high, but you may derive other benefits from the CBD, such as pain relief. Hemp is a versatile plant with thousands of applications, ranging from clothing and skin care products to dietary supplements and a substitute for concrete.
In December, the U.S. government passed the Hemp Farming Act, which removed the plant from the list of Schedule I controlled substances. This blew open the door for farmers to pursue hemp cultivation permits throughout the country and made it much easier to pursue scientific research on hemp—even in exotic places like space.
Space Tango is a Kentucky-based company that helps researchers design and implement experiments on the International Space Station. To date, the company has helped scientists perform more than 100 experiments on the ISS, but following the legalization of hemp in the U.S., it saw an opportunity to undertake a truly unprecedented research project. Hemp is a booming business in Kentucky, and Kris Kimel, a co-founder of Space Tango, knew just the right person to help send it into the final frontier.
Annie Rouse co-founded Anavii Market after growing frustrated with the variability in the effectiveness of hemp-derived CBD products she used to manage her Lyme disease symptoms. Anavii Market now tests various hemp-derived CBD products to help assure quality control in a market that was previously woefully under-regulated. After elevating the commercial potential of hemp on Earth, Rouse was ready to explore the commercial possibilities of hemp in the final frontier. When Kimel told her about his idea to send hemp to orbit, Rouse jumped at the opportunity.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen when we take the seeds up to space and what effect that will have on the plant,” Rouse told PRØHBTD. “Is it going to tease out a cannabinoid that we maybe didn’t know existed? Does it have an impact on hemp’s nutritional profile or the fiber strength?”
Rouse, Kimel and their colleagues will have to wait a few months before they have answers. The hemp seeds are expected to return to Earth in about a month, at which point they will be planted in a lab. This will allow researchers to see how the seeds’ time in orbit affected their biology by comparing the resulting hemp plants with a control group that never flew to space. According to Rouse, the hemp seeds that were sent to the ISS are from a lineage that dates back to the 1800s. This means that scientists will have a really good genetic profile with which to compare the space hemp to study how it changed.
Although this is the first time cannabis has gone to space, other plant seeds have flown to orbit. In 2017, Space Tango partnered with the University of Kentucky to send valerian and periwinkle plants to the ISS, both of which are known for their medicinal qualities. While the full results of this experiment have yet to be released, photos comparing the plants grown in space with the plants grown on Earth show that the space plants are much smaller than their terrestrial counterparts. If microgravity alters the genetics of the hemp seeds, there’s even a possibility that in the future there will be a new strain of “space hemp” being grown on Earth.
Now that the Hemp Farming Act is clearing the way for cultivation and research, we may be on the cusp of a hemp revolution. Indeed, Rouse said that this is just the first of several hemp missions to space, but she and her colleagues must wait on results before the next missions are planned. There is an argument to be made that the money spent on sending hemp seeds to space would be better spent by studying hemp on Earth, but Rouse said the expense will be worth it.
“This provides an opportunity that cannot be replicated on Earth,” Rouse said. “Trying to understand what the microgravity environment may do to the plant can actually help things on Earth move along quicker and could potentially help production here on Earth, even more so than had we not done it.”