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First Hemp Seeds Make History in Space: A Honeysuckle Exclusive Inside the Space Tango Mission

Hemp seeds from Atalo Holdings stored and prepped for the Space Tango payload - the first in history to put hemp seeds in zero-G. (C) Space Tango, courtesy of Atalo Holdings.

By Jessica Bern, Zachary Cedarbaum, and Annie Iezzi

Recently the Honeysuckle team had the stellar opportunity to speak with members of Space Tango, a microgravity research and manufacturing company which has pioneered the first-ever launch of hemp seeds into space. On Friday May 3, SpaceX CRS17 launched from Cape Canaveral with the revolutionary cargo, a mission organized by Space Tango in partnership with Atalo Holdings, a leading hemp growing and lifestyle company working on transformative technologies for crop science and agriculture, which supplied the seeds used for the project. CBD retailer Anavii Market served as a third-party partner in the mission, which is the beginning of a series of experiments on hemp in microgravity. SpaceX CRS17 docked at the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday, May 6 and tests on the seeds have been conducted within Space Tango’s private CubeLabs for the past few weeks.

This week, SpaceX CRS17 “splashed down” back to Earth to return the seeds so that Space Tango can analyze the data. It will be fascinating to see what treasures of knowledge are discovered and how those line up with the information we gleaned in our initial press conference. We’ll be on the case to learn more as Space Tango’s investigations into microgravity’s effects on hemp continue.

Honeysuckle’s exclusive phone-press conference was led by Kris Kimel, Co-Founder and Chairman of Space Tango; Joseph Hickey, Director of Corporate Operations for Atalo Holdings; and Arthur Rouse, Atalo’s publicity director and a major figure in the modern hemp movement. Rouse was the first documentarian to capture footage of actor Woody Harrelson planting hemp seeds in 1996, a groundbreaking act as no one had planted hemp seeds publicly since prohibition began in the 1930s. Continuing the family legacy, his daughter Annie Rouse, Fulbright scholar in hemp sciences and founder of Anavii Market, provided valuable insights on the developing industry.

Hemp carries a long and storied history as the non-psychoactive variety of Cannabis Sativa L., whose cultivation has been employed to provide fiber, food, and medicinal products for thousands of years. Space Tango’s new initiative intends to explore these aspects of hemp, with a particular focus on biomedical applications and health. The focus will be on enhancing its applications and efficacy. In the first launch, un-germinated hemp seeds are being exposed to microgravity for six weeks and returned to Earth for study and germination. Future expeditions hope to cultivate the plant in space, where the removal of significant gravity as a factor of plant growth causes the plants to undergo stress, forcing them to adapt. This adaption speeds up the evolutionary process and could reveal new gene expressions, structural changes, chemical changes, or even the discovery of new cannabinoids for applications on Earth and beyond.

Read on for Honeysuckle’s in-depth interview with these experts!

Space Tango team in final preparations at Kennedy Space Center for rocket installation of experiments including hemp plant biology for SpaceX 17 launch on May 4, 2019. Experiments now running on Space Tango Lab on International Space Station (ISS). (C) Space Tango

ZACHARY CEDARBAUM: What hypothesis will this experiment be testing?

KRIS KIMEL: We were particularly interested in… the zero-G physics environment in space as a platform to better understand how physical systems and biological systems, with an eye toward applications on Earth, that could be breakthroughs. We know from previous work that when we put plants into space they experience a type of stress which forces them to adapt. That adaption actually can impact the evolutionary process. The result is it can lead scientists to a greater understanding of the biological potential of the plant as well as the possibility of seeing novel gene expressions which could trigger certain kinds of reactions that we may not see on Earth. In addition, there is the potential of using the zero-gravity environment to bioengineer the plant to achieve additional or different kinds of efficacy.

The process will work as follows. The plant biology will be on space station in our lab for approximately 6 weeks, brought back to our facilities on Earth, planted out and analyzed. In subsequent missions, we will actually be germinating the plant fully with a flower. We are looking at the physics of putting hemp or cannabis sativa L in a state where there is zero gravity. Some of the things we’re particularly interested in are the cannabinoid constituent parts of the plant and the biomedical applications. Although food and fiber are certainly something we’ll be looking at as well.

CEDARBAUM: For this experiment, what are the different variables you’re going to be testing for in space as compared to being controlled those here on Earth? Like will you be allowing oxygen to free-flow through it? A nutrient bath? Something like that?

KIMEL: They’ll be sealed in our standard laboratory, but we’re not doing any special interventions on this first mission. We have a control group here on Earth from the same section of seeds to use for comparison.

ANNIE IEZZI: What was the process to determine that hemp would be a valuable asset in this experiment?

KIMEL: Hemp interested us, first because it is a very versatile plant, and our previous research indicated that there was a great deal of interest [in] the potential medical applications of cannabinoids. Also the lack of research over the past 70-75 years is quite intriguing… and the fact that there was a lot to be discovered and known, is of real importance and interest to us. Coupling that with what we’ve experienced so far in zero-G, we thought it was certainly a reasonable hypothesis to experiment in zero-G with this plant biology and begin to assess what might happen.

ANNIE ROUSE: Prior to the Farm Bill passing, hemp was still considered a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act under Schedule I, and that meant that no research funding could be pushed toward the crop to understand it, which is why we haven’t really seen [many] medical/clinical trials and such moving forward. So with the Farm Bill passing, it did provide a lot more opportunity, especially in terms of the federal government, to look at the crop and say “Okay, this has potential to be more thoroughly investigated for scientific efficacy as well as economic growth.”

JESSICA BERN: I’m guessing that there will be some sort of chemical alteration by taking out at least gravity from this equation; however… how significant would the alteration have to be in order for you to continue with this process?

KIMEL: At this point, the changes that we might see are unspecified. We had a regenerative medicine mission in the past with Tufts University where we took flatworms into zero-G. Prior to launch we cut them into three pieces: heads, tails, and midsection. When the worms returned, we did see some very interesting chemical changes. One of which we did not anticipate was one of the midsections of one of the worms had grown two heads instead of a head and a tail, and its offspring also had two heads. By going to zero-G, there are only four critical forces in nature, and if you take one of them out, you’re fundamentally impacting 3.5 billion years of evolution.

BERN: Have you had any interest from Big Pharma?

KIMEL: I can tell you from personal experience in the biomedical area that 98% of the people we have talked with outside of the space industry over the past 3-5 years really don’t have a solid grasp of why the zero-G environment can be very significant from a biomedical standpoint. A couple of years ago, we had a meeting with the Dana-Farber [Cancer Institute] in Boston, one of the top cancer centers in the world; it became clear early in the conversation that the relationship between cancer and microgravity was not something they had ever really thought that much about. [But] as the conversation continued and they began to get a deeper understanding of the issues, they became quite interested in the implications for cancer development growth and possible treatment in a microgravity environment. We talked for the next two hours about how zero gravity could have a profound effect on cancer. How it forms, how it spreads, how things interact differently than they do on Earth.

Hemp oil extraction at Atalo Holdings. (C) Atalo Holdings.

IEZZI: As far as the medical applications, would you reproduce the conditions on Earth? How would you tap into what you discover with this expedition?

KIMEL: When we talk about applications, these are all possibilities at this point. Does a plant restructure itself as it adapts in some way that changes its efficacy? We know that there’s over a hundred different cannabinoids that we currently can’t access with any degree of accuracy or volume. As this plant gets stressed, do we see meaningful chemical changes, or perhaps different kinds of gene expression?

When you get to the point of scaling up manufacturing facilities in zero-G that allows you to do research, you’re going to need extended periods of time. We’re already thinking about and have some early designs on the technology and facilities that would be required for this type of research and manufacturing (ST-42).

CEDARBAUM: I know you guys sent up some barley, not too long ago. Anything that you learned from that experiment that you might be applying to the hemp, now and down the line?

KIMEL: We’ve been working Anheuser-Busch on that.  We’ve seen some interesting changes at this point. We’re also actively engaged on this project along with some others, with Joe Chappelle, our lead scientist. Primarily we are also looking at experiments NASA has done in the past using plants as a food source, etc, in deep space or on other planets. Obviously this is different than what we’re looking at right now, but we certainly can learn from any research that’s happened.

BERN: Is there anything specifically they have learned about these applications that you will apply to your experiments now?

KIMEL: There are [decades] of data going back to the early space age. Some of it hasn’t really been replicated that much, due to the fact that until recently there were very few ways to get to space, and that was primarily the shuttle. Now, NASA’s moving to a much more innovative policy framework and inviting private sector launch companies, like SpaceX, Orbital, Blue Origin, and others that we’ll be counting on soon. It really has facilitated launch opportunities.

Atalo CEO William Hilliard in a Kentucky hemp CBD field, 2018. (C) Atalo Holdings.

JAIME LUBIN: What could this all mean for the hemp community here on Earth, for the farmers, for the CBD processors, etc?

KIMEL: Here’s an example to crystallize this. Another company that we’re involved with is LambdaVision. We’ve been working with them for a couple of years on the design for a novel retinal implant that they believe could lead to a 10x, 15x improvement treatment for diseases that can lead to blindness – macular degeneration and similar conditions. If this process works as planned, it’s an example of a biomedical product that must be made in zero-G, in space, to work as designed. [For] the application [of all kinds of things] to be realized, might require that it be processed, or developed, or manufactured off of the planet Earth.

ARTHUR ROUSE: As far as hemp goes, in the 20s, Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver and a number of other chemists and industrialists and inventors all came to the realization that hemp was going to be a phenomenal plant for all kinds of reasons. At the time, they were focused on fiber and fuel, so all that research and development that was ramping up so fast… just evaporated when the plant became illegal in 1937. I think it’s fascinating that we’re picking up where they left off so many years ago because of Prohibition. Also, because of Prohibition, it’s difficult to find stable hemp genetics. Atalo’s seed genetics have been known back to 1812, which will be of value to the research.

JOSEPH HICKEY: The seed came from England and then was sent to Canada. William Baker got it certified there and that’s where it’s been grown out. Today, you have to have certified seed because certain states don’t let you use the clones. We developed and certified this variety which will be a prime crop. Atalo is trying to position itself as the leader in the research and development of hemp as a crop that people basically forgot. Amazingly, this is going to be the last crop that will ever be introduced into the mainstream of American agriculture.

The last one was soybeans, and it took forty or fifty years to really get it commercialized, and it’s basically just a food crop. Never mind that it won’t grow in Alaska and doesn’t have the abilities to transfer to different environments like hemp does. So I think that this is definitely a big opportunity for American farmers. Some might make insulation out of it, some might make food products, some might make building materials. I see little different businesses that can spring up all over the country, utilizing hemp and the benefits that it has.

ANNIE ROUSE: The fact that technology can create exponential growth and markets plays a part in hemp being able to develop a lot more rapidly than soy did. When soy was heavily invested in by Ford, they were still trying to figure out what nitrogen and chlorophyll were, and now we know all that information, and have the equipment to make things progress in an exponential fashion. So while it may have taken soy 40 or 50 years to become commercially viable and commoditized, hemp may only take ten years.

HICKEY: Some crops are just fiber crops. Some are just seed crops. Some are dedicated to the medicinal side. But in the Victoria, we’ve got a crop that is able to do all three things.

ANNIE ROUSE: Hemp foods have still only penetrated about only 2% of the market in the US. So that’s the educational side, that hemp is not a drug, it’s a superfood. Whereas the fiber is on the up and up, but it’s still going to take a little time. Mostly because there’s been such a stranglehold on investment to fully develop the technology behind it. And then on the therapeutic side, CBD is all over the shelf now. But a lot of clinical research still needs to happen which will take a lot of time. A lot of the technology for the medicine might be there already, but it might not be accepted into the medical community until there’s clinical data behind it.

CEDARBAUM: It’s possible for hemp to be used in 3D printing, which is becoming second nature for everything on the ISS [International Space Station] for tool production. Are there any future plans to corner that market, if you find it is possible to grow hemp and harvest it and manufacture from it in microgravity? Will steps then be taken to create an industry in space for manufacturing?

KIMEL: There is a lot of interest in 3D printing in microgravity, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Space Tango actually rolled out a concept back in the fall, which was alluded to earlier, called ST-42, which is our vision for an orbital research and manufacturing free-flying platform in space, separate from and a complement to ISS, that would allow us to scale manufacturing in a variety of areas… We believe zero-G is going to become a major platform for new kinds of markets and applications that cross a range of areas. However, at the end of the day, it’s going to be dictated by whether or not it makes sense from a business standpoint. Because if it doesn’t, at the end of the day, people are going to have to start covering the real costs of these launches.

[For example] you develop a vaccine that can be scaled and made in space, that has a major impact on people’s lives. That’s an example of something that’s lightweight, and incredibly high in value, and of a significant benefit to people. You could easily make a business case for that, depending on what it was for. The same thing is certainly possible for hemp.

CEDARBAUM: Is there a corner on the market for creating oils and other essentials that can be used in space without having to launch new materials?

KIMEL: Yes, absolutely. We have a keen eye on applications that have intellectual property implications.

ARTHUR ROUSE: Atalo has always been interested in innovation along with our mission of providing another agricultural crop for the American farmer… How great would it be to identify hemp as one plant that could provide food, fiber, medicine and fuel? And while soybean and corn have potential on those levels, it appears that hemp just might have more potential than either of them.

LUBIN: The second mission is scheduled to be launched later this year?

KIMEL: We do have on the drawing board two or three additional missions that will change based on what we find in this mission and in subsequent missions. But our plan now is probably sometime late summer, or very early fall, depending on the launch schedules, [for] the second mission.

(C) Atalo Holdings

To learn more about Space Tango, the hemp project, and other research payload missions, visit spacetango.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more about Atalo Holdings and their approach to growing hemp, visit ataloholdings.com or follow on Facebook. For more about Anavii Market, CBD and nutrition, visit anaviimarket.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Zac of all trades, master of some; Zachary Cedarbaum has over a decade of experience working and consulting in a variety of fields including technology, cannabis, entertainment, and nonprofit.

Jessica Bern is a Staff Editor for Honeysuckle Magazine. Her writing has appeared on Cafe Mom, SheKnows, and The Woolfer, among others. She is also a voiceover artist, producer, and video editor. bernthis.com

Annie Iezzi is a rising junior-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying English and Political Science and writing in her scarce (and cherished) free time.

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