The first fruit that comes to mind for most people is likely something along the lines of a strawberry, blueberry, banana, or even watermelon. However, some oddball foods technically fall under the umbrella of being a fruit. The Espanola chili pepper is one of them.
The hot pepper will now be the first fruit grown in space by United States astronauts, as they aim to add some spice to their diets. If the experiment goes well, the process could be vital for future missions to Mars and beyond.
Not a Veggie
Plans to grow the Espanola chili pepper aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in November of this year began quite a while ago. There has been significant research behind choosing which fruit would be the first to grow with a NASA badge in the soil next to it.
First, researchers had to find a fruit that doesn’t grow too tall but remains productive. This effort was challenging, considering the controlled environment the fruit will grow in while it’s on the space station.
Though there are thousands of varieties of chili peppers alone, the Espanola won due to its desirable traits that will translate well to growing in space. For one, it typically grows at high altitudes. Obviously, 240 miles above Earth qualifies as high altitude.
Furthermore, the Espanola grows within a relatively short period and is easy for astronauts to pollinate. These traits are especially important as large planting fields or swarms of honeybees to pollinate crops don’t exist at the ISS.
Plus, the astronauts themselves got a vote. NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler said, “The astronauts have often expressed a desire for more spicy and flavorful foods, and so having a bit of hot flavor also seemed to be a good thing. Plus, many peppers are very high in vitamin C, which is important for space diets.”
American Grown Produce
Growing plants in space is not a groundbreaking process. Russian cosmonauts did it first in 1982 aboard the Soviet Salyut 7 with a plant known as Arabidopsis. Since 2003, astronauts have been eating the food they grow.
However, American astronauts didn’t get to enjoy the harvest until 2015. Even then, they only tasted lettuce. Fruit-bearing plants are significantly harder to grow than vegetables, especially in space.
Thankfully, researchers sent a new system called The Advanced Plant Habitat to the ISS in 2018. It will help foster growth for the peppers and other fresh foods.
While the astronauts may be hoping that the peppers add spice to their food, the space community is waiting for a bigger impact. Should the experiment prove successful, the feat will mark a huge step towards traveling to Mars and beyond.
The journey to the red planet will likely take almost a year. Travelers will need fresh food to survive the trip and colonize other planets. Surviving on dehydrated space food for the long-term isn’t an option. Therefore, learning how to successfully and reliably grow fresh fruits in space will be a massive step in the right direction for multi-planet habitation.