In July, astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) planted green chile pepper seeds as part of an experiment to test which plants could be successfully grown in space. The peppers were harvested four months later, and the team celebrated with a taco party and taste test, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN.
For astronauts living mostly off prepackaged foods for months at a time on the ISS, fresh and flavorful produce is graciously welcomed. With long missions to the moon and Mars in focus, NASA is working to find sustainable ways for astronauts to enjoy fresh foods, which will add key nutrients to their diets and improve their state of mind, according to NASA.
"Growing colorful vegetables in space can have long-term benefits for physical and psychological health," Matt Romeyn, a plant scientist at NASA, said in a press release this summer. "We are discovering that growing plants and vegetables with colors and smells helps to improve astronauts’ well-being."
Astronauts have grown radishes, zinnias and a variety of lettuces on board the ISS before, but this is the first time they grew peppers, which posed a new challenge, reports Elizabeth Howell for Space.com.
"It is one of the most complex plant experiments on the station to date because of the long germination and growing times," Romeyn said in a statement.
Friday Feasting! After the harvest, we got to taste red and green chile. Then we filled out surveys (got to have the data! ?). Finally, I made my best space tacos yet: fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes & artichokes, and HATCH CHILE! https://t.co/pzvS5A6z5u pic.twitter.com/fJ8yLZuhZS— Megan McArthur (@Astro_Megan) October 29, 2021
Biologists at the Kennedy Space Center spent two years picking the perfect pepper. They wanted to try peppers because they're a great source of vitamins and nutrients, and they can be eaten raw or cooked. Plus, peppers are fairly low maintenance to grow. The scientists narrowed their peppery candidate down to the NuMex 'Española Improved' pepper, a hybrid variety developed by scientists at New Mexico State University. It grew best in a controlled environment, making it the perfect candidate for this galactic experiment. These peppers also have a mild kick to them—a much appreciated flavor since living in microgravity can reduce an astronaut's sense of taste and smell, according to NASA.
In June, a carrier delivered supplies to the ISS along with a package of 48 pepper seeds. Astronauts on board planted the seeds in the Advanced Plant Habitat, a microwave oven-sized growing chamber. The conditions in the chamber—such as lighting, watering and air circulation—were controlled by a crew based at the Kennedy Space Center, reports CNN.
On board, the astronauts collected data and offered feedback on the flavor and spiciness of the peppers, according to NASA.
"This is important because the food astronauts eat needs to be as good as the rest of their equipment," LaShelle Spencer, a plant scientist at NASA, said over the summer. "To successfully send people to Mars and bring them back to Earth, we will not only require the most nutritious foods, but the best tasting ones as well."