In 2020 NASA will grow New Mexico chile on the International Space Station. It will be the first fruit grown in Space. There have been other fruit plants grown in space before, but not until fruiting and maturity. And yes, a pepper is a fruit!
I am a contracted scientist for NASA at Kennedy Space Center.
I am from Española, New Mexico, and I work on the Hatch to ISS project; which is the name of the mission to grow NM peppers on the International Space Station (ISS).
As much as I would love to take credit for this most awesome selection, NASA was on to Hatch peppers before I got here! New Mexico peppers have been studied extensively. There is a lot of literature available for our scientists to look at. When looking to grow a plant in space, it’s best to tend towards the one that has documented research behind it (Naturally).
So great job professors and grad students from NMSU, UNM, and NM Institutions because NASA noticed your work!
Now growing a plant in space takes a little bit of effort. A system has to be available to grow the plant in, and occasionally an astronaut will have to check in. This is crew time and resources to keep the plant alive. In the case of a Hatch pepper, it’s approixamently 88 days until green harvest, and over 130 days until red (in the lab). That is a long time!
Because I am from New Mexico. I grew up in Española. I went to school at NMSU. I know that Española is a higher elevation than Hatch, the grow season is shorter, so a pepper from there will mature faster.
This was my initial contribution to the project as a student intern. So, we bought pepper seeds!! Seeds from all over the world and grew them. In the end, the one that served our purposes the most was the Española Improved pepper from the NMSU Chile Pepper Institute. It was developed at the Alcalde’ NMSU branch in the 1970’s and is a cross between the traditional Hatch Sandia Pepper and the Traditional Española Pepper.
I was asked to write this blog, and I agreed because what we are doing here is something special. Chile is a part of who we are as a culture. To have a cultivar bearing our name on this grand stage is a once in a lifetime thing. I have been honored to not only be a whiteness to this, but I get to be the in-house “New Mexico chile expert,” that is amazing!! It means the world to me to share this experience with everybody because it truly is not ME, it is WE!
It is my wish for everybody to enjoy!
One thing that I must mention is that I am the lowest man on the totem pole on this project. I am the one who preps the growth media, packs the science carriers, plants the seeds, writes up the data, and works the hardware.
There is an amazing Project Scientist named Matthew Romeyn who has been the strongest supporter since the beginning. He is the one who really pushed for this project. Oh, by the way, he is also a retired Marine with two purple hearts. Immense love for Matt.
Nicole Dufour leads our band of scientists. She keeps us going, cool, steady, confidant! None of this amazing space stuff happens without a super special talented team.
LaShell Spencer is the horticultural force behind the peppers. Don’t let anybody tell you that I am the pepper expert. Oscar Monje who is probably one of the most respected plant scientists out there, has gracefully kept the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) going while teaching us along the way. Jeff Richards “El Jeffe’” peeks his head in and fills in all the gaps.
Dr. Ray Wheeler shows up from time to time. He is one of the most amazing plant physiologists of our time. His presence is the core of our researching spirit…the standard we hold up to…if we collectively wanted to make anybody proud, it would be Ray. Side Note: Ray loves New Mexico!
I believe he has hiked Wheeler peak. He talks about Santa Fe and Taos like a local. It’s very cool to talk to him.
Lucie Poulet comes to work with us. She is going to run a test in the APH while we are growing peppers and it is truly an honor to work with her. There are many people doing all kinds of work that will eventually lead to these pepper seeds sitting on a rocket and eventually being grown on the ISS.
This will be an amazing feat.
A little bit of my history
My grandmother had a beautiful garden growing up. It was an oasis, a lush paradise in the Española Valley. As she got older it was hard for her to take care of it and ultimately, I took it on. Towards the end of her life, instead of putting her in a home, my family did an amazing thing where they all pitched in to take care of her. One week my mom would stay with her, the next my uncle, and so on. I was attending Northern at the time and still trying to find my path. Meanwhile, I got to drive grandma around Santa Fe, Albuquerque, while I pursued what would become my future.
I grew everything in grandmas garden; Zinnias first, tomatoes, lettuce n greens, radishes, corn, squash…everything one would need for an awesome salad. And of course, one thing I grew in my “Española garden” was Española chile!
I seemed to graduate from Northern about the time that my grandma passed. I earned an Associates in Renewable Energies, and a certificate in Automotive technology. Graduated Maga Cum Laude. Not long after, I got a letter from NMSU saying that If I went there, I would get a scholarship. I always wanted to be an engineer, so I signed up!
At NMSU I earned my bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology, got some excellent experiences under my belt in the development of the Green Chile DE stemmer (for the NM Chile Association) and was hired fresh out of school to be an Engineer at Cummins Inc. in Columbus, Indiana. There I did my part to develop the 2017 ISX-15 L Diesel engine (it’s the kind that’s in the big rig semi-trucks) and I dreamed of going to grad school.
In 2016 I took the GRE exam, applied and was accepted into Purdue University. I was awarded a teaching assistantship which allowed me to teach undergrad classes in thermodynamics, and fluid power to pay for tuition. I did my research on the Biowall, which is a botanical air filter that uses the roots of plants to filter indoor air.
Side thought: Did you know that indoor air is 4-5 times more polluted than outdoor? Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is something that has been acknowledged by the industry and research has shown that it is a cause of respiratory problems, headaches, tiredness, long term sicknesses, and the like.
The Biowall is a system that uses technology and automation to grow plants indoors, and filters Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) from the air. I wrote my master’s thesis on the Biowall. While writing, I decided to apply for an internship at NASA. I applied to the line that said, ‘Plant Growth for Food Production in Microgravity.”
To my shock, I got an email for an interview, and the rest is history.
I was offered my current job in December 2018. I graduated from Purdue University in May 2019. I am one of the most blessed individuals, I had a job before I even graduated!
This all was the path that led me to where I am today.
Back to the future….
There is no way that I could had known at the time that the path I was searching for at Northern (NNMC) and at school, I was already on.
Today I am a “Technical and Horticultural Scientist” at NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC), which honestly is a title that I gave myself and attempts to explain what I do in a few words. I am a contractor with a company called AECOM and I was brought in to contribute my engineering plant growing perspective to the NASA APH and VEGGIE team.
The team that I work with is developing ways to grow crops in space and other environments, like the Moon, and Mars. Growing fresh food to supplement the crews’ diet will be essential to these missions.
It starts with our chief Brian Onate, who has a very New Mexican name! We have two plant growth systems on the International Space Station (ISS). One is called VEGGIE. It’s beautiful in its simplicity!
Zinnias were the first flower grown in it.
Dr. Gioia Massa and Trent Smith are a huge force behind VEGGIE.
The second is called the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) which allows the experimenters to control the environment and parameters.
The APH is where NM Peppers will be grown in on the ISS. On Earth we have a web of plant growth labs at the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF), where we perform dozens of experiments which lead towards our goals. One of those experiments is Hatch to ISS.
In this blog, I will share my personal journey to grow Space Chile and other things. It will be my scientist blog!
There are going to be great things to talk about, like the rocket launch, and the day we plant, the first fruit, and the question; Red or Green?
If you stay tuned, I will give the best description of my experience that I can, which is not only growing peppers!! Growing New Mexico chile in a lab is really only a small percentage of what I do.