The Española chile pepper will be the first fruiting plant NASA grows in space

Posted at 9:21 AM, Jul 14, 2019

It's one small step for man, one giant leap for chile peppers.

A team of scientists at NASA is working to launch the Española chile pepper into space. This would be the first fruiting plant the United States has grown and harvested at the International Space Station.

As NASA looks to send astronauts to Mars, it's crucial that the agency find plants and fruits that can travel with them.

According to Jacob Torres, a NASA scientist, depending on the alignment of the planets, the shortest trip to Mars would still take two years. Traditional prepackaged meals will not provide enough vitamins and nutrients for astronauts on the journey.

"They would be able to fill their stomachs up, but they wouldn't have the nutrients to do their work," Torres said.

Before NASA embarks toward the Red Planet, scientists must find ways to supplement the astronauts' diet with freshly grown fruits and vegetables, such as the Española pepper.

Why chile peppers?

There are many challenges to growing crops in space. A plant must be easily pollinated and able to survive in a high-carbon-dioxide environment.

Scientists found that certain chile peppers can do both these things.

When Torres arrived at NASA in 2018 for an internship, scientists were exploring the possibility of growing Hatch peppers, a New Mexico chile.

Torres, a native of that state, suggested that the team look at the state's Española pepper instead.

Hatch peppers grow in the deserts of New Mexico, but Española peppers grow at much higher altitudes and have a shorter growth period, making them better for harvesting in space.

The Española peppers have exceeded expectations, he said. NASA is preparing to send the peppers off to the International Space Station between November and January.

Fighting colds in space

Not only can chile peppers withstand extreme conditions, they are packed with vitamins. This will help astronauts battle some of the health problems they face in space, Torres said.

Zero gravity causes the body's fluids to rise to the head, making astronauts feel as though they have a constant cold . Astronauts also report losing their sense of taste and having a hard time seeing, Torres said.

These peppers will be able provide a boost of vitamin C.

"Just imagine having a fresh pepper to bite into after months of eating cardboard," Torres said.

An extraterrestrial garden

NASA hopes to grow a variety of crops in space with different nutritional values, Torres said.

"We need to grow enough to supplement diet," he said. "Just like here on Earth, we can't live on the same thing."

NASA has grown three types of lettuce , as well as Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale and zinnia flowers.

The Española pepper would be the first fruiting plant -- a flowering plant that grows a seed pod to procreate -- to be grown at the International Space Station.

The astronauts love keeping up the gardens, Torres said.

Cmdr. Scott Kelly cared for a blooming zinnia flower during a mission in 2016.

He shared images of the plant from aboard the International Space Station, tweeting, "Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower #YearInSpace"

Kelly was also one of the first to sample a crop of Outredgeous red romaine lettuce grown on the space station in 2015.