A small step for the man, a giant step for the carne asada.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have successfully grown and harvested chili peppers in space, and this week they enjoyed their loot for the first time. Megan McArthur, a grinning American astronaut, said on Twitter that she added peppers to beef fajita, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes to create the “best space tacos yet.”
Delicious tacos are always something to celebrate. But in this case, they are even more significant.
Astronauts primarily eat packaged foods, much of which is freeze-dried to reduce size and bulk, with fresh produce sometimes delivered to the station during routine supply missions. But a longer trip to Mars, which could take up to three years, would make it impossible to receive fresh produce, and delivery logistics would be difficult even on a shorter trip to the moon.
Food cultivation in space is therefore seen as a crucial challenge, allowing astronauts to supplement their diet. Last year, NASA announced that lettuce grown in space was safe to eat and as nutritious as that grown on Earth. But chili peppers have been more difficult to grow; NASA described the experiment as “one of the most complex to date on the station due to the long germination and growth times.”
There are additional benefits to growing chili peppers. Astronauts who don’t like the taste of their food may eat less, which can lead to health problems. Adding a little spice could boost morale and reduce fatigue with the limited cooking options available.
Because fluids flow to the head in a weightless environment, many astronauts become congested and crave spicy foods. Some brought hot sauce.
NASA researchers spent two years researching the perfect pepper to grow, evaluating more than two dozen options. They settled on the Hatch chili from Hatch, NM, which has a rating of 2,000 to 4,000 Scoville heat units, roughly the level of Tabasco sauce. (Much like sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne, in France, peppers grown on the space station are not technically Hatch peppers, as they were grown outside of the Hatch Valley.)
Although astronauts have been growing plants in space for decades, it’s difficult to grow edible foods without the benefits of gravity and natural light. Veggie, a chamber used to grow lettuce and other plants on the space station since 2014, feeds plants in porous ceramic clay instead of soil and uses wicks to guide water to the roots.
A NASA team planted 48 pepper seeds on Earth with a fertilizer specially designed for peppers and sent them to the space station as part of a SpaceX cargo resupply mission. In July, the astronauts started watering them and pollinating some of the flowers; a few of the plants have developed fruit, which was harvested for the tacos and will be harvested again in November, NASA said.