In my last post I talked about the Hatch to ISS project which will grow peppers from New Mexico in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH). The APH is a environmentally controlled plant growth system aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Española Improved is the first pepper plant that NASA has selected to grow in one of their systems on the ISS. They have already grown a variety of leafy green type crops in VEGGIE, as well as zinnias!
And check this out, UNM (Dr. David Hanson) and LANL were part of the first grow out in the APH! They grew Arabidopsis and Dwarf Wheat during PH-01.
The mechanism that will take Hatch, NM to ISS is a technical demonstration within the APH. Growing peppers in it will be a demonstration of the systems capabilities. In pure NASA fashion, they will do it in style with a variety that is world famous, the Hatch pepper.
The Española Improved was developed by the NMSU Ag extension in Alcalde, NM and is a cross between the Hatch Sandia pepper and the traditional Española pepper.
Quick fact: Have you seen where the New Mex Big Jim is on the Scoville scale? According to SecoSpice.com New Mex Big Jim ranges between 1,500 and 2,500 Scoville heat units. As compared to a jalapeno which is 3,000-8,000. Cheyenne peppers sit at 30,000-50,000!!
All of this plant growth in space stuff begs the question, why do it?
The core of NASAs’ intention to grow crops in space is ultimately to supplement astronauts diets.
NASA has determined to complete the Atriums missions which will take the U.S.A. back to the moon. Over time we will venture further away from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) into longer and longer missions, eventually taking us to Mars and beyond.
The intention is to pack stored meals for the crew to eat along these missions, essentially a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE). But there are nutrients and vitamins within MRE’s that degrade over time.
Imagine a crew of four working to set up a Mars base. At a time where they will need every calorie afforded to their diets, the meals packed for them will have fewer of them.
After detailed consideration, NASA decided that the way to make up these nutrients is to grow fresh crops during the mission. These crops can be harvested and eaten fresh by the crew during their long trek from home.
Also, it’s rough being limited to just a few menu selections over a long space mission. Anyone would get what is called “meal fatigue,” or just plane tired of eating the same thing.
To have a fresh ‘something’ to eat…a pepper for example, greatly aids the fatigue of eating the same meals over and over!
There are a multitude of benefits to growing plants, and crops in space. From understanding the biology of, to development of equipment and methods that will benefit farmers on Earth, to fostering collaboration between universities and industry.
Plus, let’s not forget that the crew is hundreds to thousands of miles away from home, over a long period of time. Maintaining a garden and a green space along this mission, away from all the things that make home so special, is a great morale boost. It is a connection to home.
I can speak from experience here. I am so much happier while tending my plant growth experiments at Kennedy, even though I am so far away from home. It just makes my day! Imagine how a passionate crew member would feel deep out in space!
Why grow the Pepper?
Growing the pepper itself has many benefits that fit into the current phase of the mission at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
A couple of quick facts about peppers; peppers can have more vitamin C than an orange; they are a source of creatine; they have a shiny skin that acts like an encasement, keeping the contents inside ‘food safe;’ and they can be eaten fresh…or later.
The spiciness of the pepper stimulates tastes bus. In the lack of gravity, astronauts report the feeling of a head cold. The blood that normally circulates through your legs and extremities aided by gravity on Earth are no more in microgravity. That fluid tends to stay in the head, creating the congested feeling and lack in taste that one would have with a cold.
A fruit with Vitamin C and Creatine will come in handy.
But one big qualifying virtue of the pepper plant is its ability to be pollinated easily. It can simply be done by tapping the flower. Tests are being conducted in the APH EDU at KSC (I know lots of acronyms) to use the fan to shake the flower, effectively pollinating it. Our Initial tests have been successful.
All of these factors equate to peppers being a great candidate crop to grow in space.
Side note: when and how to eat peppers in space is still up for question. The crew can harvest green peppers early on, or red when they mature. Cooking capabilities are limited on the ISS. Imagine what one busted pepper from a dried ristra would do in space!!
I give the most realistic idea to Astronaut Christina Koch who revealed her plan to students from the ISS downlinked to UNM in December. She explained how she would wrap the pepper with crew wipes, and use the hot water available on the ISS to loosen up the skin, essentially making the space version of peeled green chile!! (See video link below).
During initial grow outs, the crew will eat the peppers fresh.
See Astronaut Christina Koch commenting from space on New Mexico green chile and me talking to Katie Stone from the Children’s Hour. (December, 10, 2019). https://news.unm.edu/news/nasa-astronaut-chats-live-with-500-students-at-unm
Why the Española Improved?
Lashelle Spencer, our lead horticulturist tested, and is testing dozens of pepper varieties from all over the world. As space botanists we have a unique need from the crops that we select to grow.
Growing plants on the ISS means a high CO2 environment. LED lighting does not deliver the full spectrum that the sun will. The growth media is unlike soil in make up and nutrients.
We are growing a natural living thing using technology and artificial means.
After hundreds of combined hours of prepping, planting, documenting, harvesting… peppers in a chamber and in Greenwerks, only a few stood up to the treatments.
The New Mexico varieties would show some of the same issues that the others did. Primarily a blistering in the leaves that we are calling intumescence, and curly wilt.
These are things that would rarely be seen in their natural setting. But no matter how hard we drive them, they always persevere, and they provide good fruit.
What made the push for a northern variety specifically was maturity rate. The higher elevation, shorter grow season, northern variety will fruit faster than the lower elevation ones which have a longer period between freezing weather. Less grow time means less energy consumption and less crew time.
Also there is only so much space in the APH. It’s about the size of a small refrigerator (40 cm high). Any plant grown in there will have to live within its bounds.
The New Mexico varieties were huge, and would grow everywhere looking for light! The Española Improved seemed to dwarf down when we grew them in the APH science carriers. And currently they are growing perfect in size inside the APH.
So the Española Improved it is.
CNN Announces Space Chile https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/14/us/chile-peppers-space-trnd/index.html
Albuquerque Journal New Mexico Chile Blasting Into Space https://www.abqjournal.com/1342933/new-mexico-chile-is-blasting-into-space-ex-nasa-testing-espantildeolahatch-hybrid-as-spacegrown-food-for-astronauts.html
The Rio Grande Sun NASA Growing Peppers in Space http://www.riograndesun.com/jacob-torres-nasa-growing-peppers/image_50e3bfb2-a343-11e9-8c5f-5fcfc42bf1ef.html