For several weeks, a few peppers have been growing aboard the International Space Station. As NASA eyes longer space missions, it’s looking for ways to provide long-term food for astronauts — and there are few studies about growing plants in zero gravity.
Astronauts have grown other crops (such as radishes or lettuce) on the ISS, but peppers are more problematic, especially because they take longer to bear fruit. The project was meant to shed light on how peppers grow in microgravity and interact with microbes in this environment.
“An excellent source of Vitamin C, peppers are more difficult to cultivate than many possible space crops because they take longer to germinate, grow, and develop fruit,” a NASA statement explains. “The investigation includes microbial analysis to improve understanding of plant-microbe interactions in space and assessment of flavor and texture, which vary based on the growth environment and care such as amount of watering.”
The project started in July, and now, it was finally harvesting time. Although the project was complex (the plant growth facility on the space station has 180 sensors and controls for monitoring plant growth and the environment), everything went according to plan, which means hot peppers will be on the menu of astronauts.
The plants are a hybrid Hatch chile, with Hatch being a region in New Mexico famous for its peppers. The seeds come from a cultivar called Española Improved, which have a pretty gentle hotness level of around 2,000 SHU units
After the harvest was done and a few samples were set aside for further research, astronauts got a taste of their labor — with oceanographer and astronaut Megan McArthur making her “best space tacos yet”. The astronauts had to rate the peppers and complete a survey about them, data that NASA will also use for future space crop plans.
If we are to expand our manned exploration range, it’s crucial that we develop a system for growing food in these conditions.
“It is one of the most complex plant experiments on the station to date because of the long germination and growing times,” said Matt Romeyn, principal investigator for the project. “We have previously tested flowering to increase the chance for a successful harvest because astronauts will have to pollinate the peppers to grow fruit.”
For astronauts, growing plants can be about more than just food: it can be a way to ease some of the stress and pressure of outer space and improve mental and physical wellbeing.
“Growing colorful vegetables in space can have long-term benefits for physical and psychological health,” Romeyn said. “We are discovering that growing plants and vegetables with colors and smells helps to improve astronauts’ well-being.”
So far, the astronauts seem to be enjoying both the agricultural process and the end result. Space is about to get hot.