What makes an out-of-this-world chile?

Heat, flavor and outer space.

Last year, University of New Mexico biology professor David Hanson partnered with NASA scientist and Española native Jacob Torres to launch the Space Chile Grow a Pepper Plant Challenge — a competition to create not only the perfect chile, but one that can grow sans gravity, in a controlled environment among the stars.

The project is not solely for entertainment’s sake. It’s also useful for NASA’s Advanced Plant Habitat PH04 mission — an experiment dedicated to growing peppers in outer space — and other agricultural space missions.

“It’s involving everybody in my research,” said Torres, a horticulturist whose mission is to help NASA one day grow food on a colonized Mars. “Really, behind the scenes, I wanted to give a way for New Mexicans to enjoy what I’m doing.”

For the challenge, which started on thesantafevip.com and now runs primarily on Facebook, Torres sends donated chile seeds he receives from Fidel Martinez’s farm in Chimayó to growers and asks them to document their successes and failures growing plants in a controlled indoor environment, using methods like a homemade hydroponic cup or a sealed carrier. Once the plants are fully mature, the grower will send a dried chile sample to the University of New Mexico for Hanson and his students to assess.

Hanson, a plant physiologist, will then measure the chile’s capsaicin property, a compound that contains heat, as well as look at its coloring and size.

Whoever grows the biggest and hottest chile “has truly grown a pepper that’s out of this world,” Torres said.

He plans to give the winner or winners some of the first chile seeds grown at NASA, in addition to archived souvenirs from his research. The success is a “huge honor,” he said, especially given that even NASA researchers are struggling to grow spicy chiles in their lab.

“We can’t get them to taste like they do back home,” he said with a laugh. “So, I’m going to go to [the winners] and ask them how they did it.”

Though the challenge started small, with about 100 participants from New Mexico, more than 1,200 people are now involved in the Facebook group, and 400 classrooms have joined the effort. Torres said he’s already sent seeds to all seven continents and estimates some 4,000 people are involved worldwide.

One Facebook user, Josie Pechous of Minnesota, posted a photo of sprouted seeds she had successfully germinated on wet paper towels. Another, Akiko Kojima of Japan, shared a video showcasing a lush chile plant she grew in a paper cup.

“It’s grown into this crazy community. … It spans so many people it’s unbelievable,” Torres said.

He said the project growth is due to to the COVID-19 pandemic. When New Mexico went into lockdown in mid-March, “that was the day my inbox went boom,” he said.

Since then, he’s spent about 25 hours each week — “It’s like my second job,” he joked — filling out envelopes and communicating with new challengers. He also posts New Mexico recipes, facts about the chile’s cultural significance in the state and tips on how to roast chiles or dry them to make ristras.

Hanson started receiving envelopes of dried chiles last month as plants were “just coming up and ripening,” he said. He expects more chiles to arrive in the coming weeks, once the growers “can part ways with them,” he said with a laugh.

Hanson, whose expertise in photosynthesis has brought him to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida a number of times in his career, said this challenge is one of the more unusual programs that’s ever run at NASA because it allows people of all ages and backgrounds to contribute to a large-scale program.

“This is a challenge that people can participate in, much in the way I can get involved in NASA research myself, in that it’s an experiment done a couple hundred miles above us, flying at what — 12 or 16,000 miles per hour, going around the Earth,” Hanson said. “It’s distance science. … Any of the stuff that I can do [in my lab] can be done by anyone, anywhere.”

“It gives people a way to participate in meaningful ways in research,” he added.

Additionally, during these strange times, the project can give people a sense of purpose, Torres said.

“Now rather than being stuck on Netflix, people think, ‘I can go out and check my pepper plant,’ ” he said. “And then, check this out, the best part: You get to eat them!”

Here’s the original article from the Santa Fe New Mexican,


We here at The Santa Fe VIP.com are proud to be the launching pad for this amazing challenge. Thanks Jacob!