NASA Chile Peppers

NASA’s Expedition 66 crew members conduct a taste test of the first fruiting plants ever grown in space, “Española Improved” chile peppers.

NASA’s project to grow the “Española Improved” chile pepper in space is bearing fruit. 

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station sampled the first harvest of space-grown peppers on Oct. 29: NASA astronaut Megan Macarthur described them as having “a nice spiciness and a bit of a lingering burn.” 

These were the first fruiting plants to be grown in space. For longer space missions, like the Artemis missions to the moon and beyond, growing fresh produce will be preferable to the packaged foods astronauts have survived on so far. 

The pepper seeds were sterilized and planted on Earth in a controlled environment called the Advanced Plant Habitat and launched to space on June 3. The plants were pollinated by ramping a fan up and down to shake the flowers, and also by some hand-pollination. 

Española native Jacob Torres, who helped develop the program at NASA, was pleased to see the Española chile variety selected for the experiment, and he said they brought some interesting results. 

“These chile plants were amongst the prettiest I have seen grown in our controlled environments,” Torres said. “They had a bright healthy green, and the flowers were beautiful. Fruiting was a bit delayed as compared to our ground trials.”

Torres noted that some of the plants displayed special characteristics in the microgravity environment, with fruit growing up toward the light instead of hanging down like you might see on your plants at home. 

The crew harvested one red and six green chiles, and they plan to harvest again after Thanksgiving. Some chiles will be sent back to Earth for analysis. In another experiment, some chile seeds are being exposed to radiation outside the space station and will be brought in and planted next year. 

Torres has encouraged Northern New Mexico students to take part in a national citizen science program called Growing Beyond Earth to involve them in NASA’s space horticulture experiments. Torres said that Scott Valdez’s students at Española Valley High School recorded plant growth data from one of the candidate crops for future space growth, and they were recognized as state champions in plant science at the Science & Engineering Fair. 

Camilla Martin’s art class at McCurdy Charter School contributed a logo for the mission, and Española Elementary teacher Michelle Martinez grew pepper plants with her students during the Student Leadership Workshop in 2020. Torres said at least 16 students from Española reached out to him to get involved in growing seeds for the program during the COVID lockdown. 

“The growth of peppers were a technical demonstration to advance our ability to grow more crops,” Torres said. “This grow demonstrated flowering, fruiting, a new wicking method as well as how the Advanced Plant Habitat performs under a long duration grow.”

Matt Romeyn, a Principal Investigator for the mission, said that two tomato experiments are forthcoming. 

“As for what’s next,” Romeyn wrote in an email, “I’d say it’s a tossup between legumes (peas, beans), micro-greens, and herbs.”

(2) comments

Parent Advocate

This is such a awesome project. As it moves along and they grow more fruits and vegetables up there, they need to add on to the station and create a garden with a bee hive and see if bees can survive in space and help with the pollination!

Jtatnasa

Thank you @Parent Advocate! Our hope was that successful growth of peppers would open the door to grow more crops..now we can pollinate, fruit, and grow long duration. I would love to see a space plant biology module on the ISS! Maybe our Chile growout is a crack in the door to making something like that happen! But follow our existing plant growth systems Veggie and Advanced Plant Habitat!! We have more growouts in the works! 😃👋🏼

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