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Laura Waterman Wittstock

President and CEO, Wittstock & Associates

Back to the Stars

The NASA space shuttle Atlantis landed on July 21, ending a 30-year program of space exploration and experimentation. One massive payload it carried was called the “Raffaello Multi-purpose Logistics Module,” a container filled with five tons of supplies and spare parts for the space station (ISS). Now dubbed Leonardo, the module will stay at the space station for the duration of its useful life. Its large size will provide much needed space for the astronauts who visit the station in the future.

That is the big component of the flight. But also nestled in the payload was a very tiny experiment: American Indian tobacco seeds in a microgravity environment. This was the first and only plant experiment involving native seeds cultivated only by American Indians from the Western Hemisphere using native agricultural science over millennia.

Instrumentation Technology Associates (ITA) built the hardware that carries the microgravity experiments. A commercial company, experiments are carried on missions for a fee. The company continues to book space on commercial flights and government-sponsored space programs. Valerie Cassanto, the company owner’s daughter assisted in getting the experiment underway. The company’s small hardware would become the home of the tobacco seeds during the flight.

Kenji Williams with other associates at the Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) NASA education team worked with Dakota Astronomer Jim Rock and his wife, educator Roxanne Gould to bring the experiment aboard Atlantis. They met at an environmental science conference in Minnesota. Rock explains how he chose the 800-year old cultivar of small leaf yellow tobacco for the trip, named in Dakota,” Chandi.” Once he was selected to be a part of the volunteers for the group, he immediately thought of tobacco and the “Three Sisters,” the corn, beans, and squash that are traditionally grown together on Indian plots. It soon became apparent that the larger seeds would not fit into the shuttle’s Materials Dispersion Apparatus (MDA) minilabs that have unique power supplies. So Jim fell back to a plan to create an experiment with Indian tobacco alone. The tiny seeds would fit into the MDA spaces.

MDAs are capable of mixing up to three fluids in their environments using a liquid-to-liquid diffusion process. The MDAs are therefore capable of conducting biomedical, manufacturing and fluid sciences processes. The tiny tobacco seeds would get water at a specific time and point in space. The seeds were hard to load because of their tiny size, but Jim was adamant that precision be applied: seven seeds for the Seven Starfire Nations Ocheti Shakowin Oyate. Other containers held 13, 20 and 365 seeds for a total of 405. The astronauts had to turn cranks to deliver water to the seeds at specific times. The number of seeds relates to the Dakota association with loading a pipe for ceremonies and the Dakota/Nakota view of the “river in the sky” the Milky Way, where it is said the people come from a star, an origin: Wakan Titit. And befitting the river association, the seeds were carried to the launching site in tiny canoes, made especially for the voyage.

Even though Jim Rock is trained in science which he also teaches, he brings with him the knowledge of his ancestors, handed down to him specifically by his father, Tabdoka Sapa Itokab Najin Sni, a name that translates as “Do Not Stand In Front Of The Black Buffalo,” acknowledging that which gives life. Rock wrote: “This reminds us to have great respect for the extreme, sacrificial generosity of the buffalo who represents the Universe to us and who is also our stellar ancestor as seen in the racetrack constellations (including Orion and parts of Taurus, Canis Major and Gemini).  There we see the “Black (star) Buffalo.”  It is to my “Ate” (father) we dedicate this “star seeds of life” experiment.”

The seeds are back on earth now, and on their way to the Science Museum of Minnesota where they will continue to be observed. Rock will continue his work as a Dakota astronomer/educator with the Indigenous Educational Design company working with the Minnesota Planetarium Society, NASA’s Beautiful Earth Project, and NOAA’s WorldViewsNetwork, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas, the AIOIC (American Indians Opportunities Industrialization Center) and Dream of Wild Health.

America’s indigenous past now has a link with the most ambitious 30-year old space program ever created. For Jim Rock the experiment in flight was a way to reach toward a long-ago Dakota/Nakota past: the Buffalo’s backbone; those three stars in Orion’s belt.



The Minnesota Planetarium Deserves a Good Home

 We take looking up at the skies for granted. The stars and moon will always be there. Only the headline of a transit of Venus or the infamous blue moon calls our attention to the reality that the firmament is not fixed and we are a tiny population in a galaxy far away. Romantic maybe, but definitely not something we should take for granted for ourselves but especially not for our children. 

Most people agree that we should educate ourselves all of our lives. There is no room for limited thinking, especially not for the coming generations. It will comfort many Minnesotans to know that the MN Planetarium Society just passed an important 100,000 mark. That many school children have now had lessons about the cosmos, given by Planetarium teacher Sally Brummel. This teacher and a small crew of volunteers, consultant Joel Halvorson, and staff member Mike Linnemann have traveled extensively to bring a portable dome and astronomy program to schools.

We have a few small planetariums like the ones in Duluth, Hibbing, or New Ulm, but only one serves the entire state: the Minnesota Planetarium and Space Discovery Center. But, you can look at a list of the state's planetariums and observatories and not find the Minnesota Planetarium. That's because when the Minneapolis Central Library was torn down in 2003 to build the new Central Library, the Planetarium lost its home. Then known as the Minneapolis Planetarium, four million visitors went there over 50 years. Creaky, old equipment went into the dustbin as plans were made for a shining new edifice to go on top of the new Central Library. Now, eight years later, Minnesotans still have no state planetarium. Even with $22 million in bonding, there was not enough to build. The new planetarium, with the most modern equipment and software has had to wait for a greater will and the gifts needed to make it a reality.

For many reasons, support from the City of Minneapolis and then Hennepin County has lagged. Now, a new partnership with the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota gives some hope that a new planetarium will be available to the people of the state. Collaborative Bell/Planetarium  camps for kids are planned for this summer and if Legacy funds are approved by the state legislature, more is possible, such as a "Cycle of Our Seasons" program that will link the states many small planetariums in new ways: via shared software, 3-D technology, and the inclusion of real objects from space. 

What's to make all this happen? Only the course of the legislative process will bring real space science to Minnesotans. It may seem like the proverbial "no brainer" to many, but politics on the hill in St. Paul are sharply divided in dozens of ways. The Minnesota Planetarium has brought STEM science to the children of the state like no other effort so far. What is STEM? It is science, technology, engineering and mathematics: the discipline areas vitally needed if the United States is going to be competitive on the world stage. The future is more of STEM, not less, and Minnesota needs to be in the competition, not sidelined by a failure to see the benefits of a future with what the Minnesota Planetarium will offer.

Minnesotans should show their support by picking up the phone, sending an email, or writing a letter to the members of the Legacy Division in the House or the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Do it today.