In a few years, an astronaut on the International Space Station or even on a mission to Mars might eat a chile pepper or another plant as part of a meal. That astronaut would have students at Española Valley and McCurdy to thank for the research that led to that space-grown food.
Classrooms at Española Valley High School and McCurdy Charter School are participating in the Growing Beyond Earth project to help NASA research how best to grow plants in outer space.
“That’s a dream come true,” said Jacob Torres about bringing NASA research to Española.
Torres, a NASA researcher and a McCurdy Charter School graduate, has been instrumental in these projects and in bringing them to the Valley.
Torres created the Space Chile Grow a Pepper Plant Challenge as an unofficial competition run in a Facebook group that includes a McCurdy Middle School class to grow the hottest Chimayó Chile Pepper using conditions mimicking outer space. A Pojoaque class also recently joined the project.
Growing Beyond Earth, meanwhile, is a fully-funded project from NASA with over 200 classrooms in 31 states. The project includes junior high and high-school classrooms growing plants and recording data, and focuses more on vegetables than chile peppers.
“This is the real deal,” Torres said of Growing Beyond Earth. “It’s not just Jacob Torres with his pepper plant challenge, it’s real deal NASA.”
Española Valley High School has a project with Scott Valdez’s classroom, and charts its progress on Twitter at @EVHSGrowBeyond as they grow dragoon lettuce. The class was able to have their final measurement in late February.
Laureen Pepersack’s high school biology class is working on this project and also growing dragoon lettuce, in an artificial clay medium rather than soil.
Pepersack has worked with NASA for five years, she said, including a cloud observation project. She now has the NASA-supplied plant habitat at home as she teaches her classroom.
“It’s kind of like having a UFO in my living room,” Pepersack said about the project.
Pepersack said because the school is virtual, she set up the plants and now holds up rulers to the plants so students can measure from pictures. Students enter data into a spreadsheet that she collects.
She said she had to adjust some of the instructions, which said to not water too much at first.
“It’s New Mexico,” she said. “Oh yeah I did, I really had to water a lot.”
She said they will send their records to the Kennedy Space Center at the end of the project for them to interpret with analysis. She said she is grateful for NASA who made the effort to reach out to them, and how it taught students about what they can do in the future.
Amy Padolf, the Director of Education at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., which organizes the Growing Beyond Earth project, said every year NASA tells them what to research. She said formal evaluations have shown that these projects are also very helpful for students’ education.
“Students are used to textbook experiments and research questions in school, and the answers are always in the back of the book,” Padolf said. “What they’re doing is now they’re actively contributing to real-world research. It’s incredibly powerful and transformative.”
Torres said it is important to have fresh foods, as nutrients degrade over time, and fruits and vegetables can also give extra taste to their diet. Especially for a trip to Mars that would take multiple years, meals would decay and fresh food is likely a necessity.
The perfect fruit for outer space, Torres said, such as growing in confined spaces, being easily pollinated, and the right nutrients, and peppers fit the criteria. They need to be flavorful, but not too hot, otherwise in zero-gravity it could fly into astronauts' eyes.
NASA had been working with the Hatch chile pepper as having the right level of heat measurement, known as Scovels, and growing in the right environment. Torres said when he was an intern, he learned about them using the Hatch pepper. He then pointed out that they needed to have a pepper grow as quickly as possible, and told them about how in the mountains the peppers have to mature faster before winter, and suggested using Española peppers, which proved to be even better in tests.
“So now forever, everybody will think, ‘Oh, they picked that pepper for Jacob because he’s from Española,’” Torres said. “But I’m telling you, NASA doesn’t do that, they go by the science and it was just really the matter of chance and luck that the pepper from my hometown is the one that will be the space pepper.”
Torres said suspicions from everyone he talked to in Española that the peppers would not taste the same without Española soil were correct. But NASA does not have the capabilities to do that in-depth level of research, so Torres said “I’ll start my own army” to experiment with ways to grow the peppers to taste good.
Torres’s challenge is already producing results. He said a grower in Kansas tried putting sulfur in the soil and found that made the peppers hotter; another grower in Japan tried changing the temperature in her environment and found that made the peppers ripen and become tastier (her other posts in the Facebook group show her trying chile sauce on different foods.)
Torres said seeds and fertilizer will be on SpaceX 22, scheduled to launch in May, and he said peppers will be not long after.
Researchers have started growing plants, including lettuce and radishes within the last few months in the International Space Station’s Advanced Plant Habitat, according to a recent press release.
One New Mexico chile seed was launched last month as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE). The seeds will be placed in containers outside the International Space Station for six months, and then collected and returned to Earth and grown to see if the radiation has effects on their growth. Torres wrote on Facebook that he is not personally involved in this project but is excited for his teammates.