A small step for man, a giant leap for roast meat.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have successfully cultivated and harvested chilies in space, and this week have enjoyed their booty for the first time. Megan McArthur, an American astronaut who smiles from ear to ear, said on Twitter that she added peppers to fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes to create the “best space tacos so far.”
Delicious tacos are always something to celebrate. But in this case, they are even more significant.
Astronauts mostly eat packaged food, much of it freeze-dried to reduce its size and volume, with some fresh produce occasionally delivered to the station on routine supply missions. But a longer trip to Mars, which could take up to three years, would make it impossible to receive fresh groceries and delivery logistics would be difficult even on a shorter trip to the Moon.
Therefore, growing food crops in space is considered a crucial challenge to overcome, 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 chilies have been harder to grow; NASA described the experiment as “one of the most complex to date at the station due to the long germination and growth times.”
There are additional benefits to growing chilies. Astronauts who don’t like the taste of their food may eat less, which can lead to health problems. Adding a little spice could improve morale and reduce fatigue with the limited culinary options available.
Because fluids flow to the head in a weightless environment, many astronauts get congested and crave spicy foods. Some have brought spicy sauce.
NASA researchers spent two years looking for the perfect pepper to grow, evaluating more than two dozen options. They were established in Chile Hatch of Hatch, NM, which has a rating of 2,000 to 4,000 units of Scoville heat, approximately the level of Tabasco sauce. (Like sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne, France, peppers grown on the space station are not technically Hatch peppers, as they were grown outside the Hatch Valley.)
Although astronauts have been cultivating plants in space for decades, cultivating edible foods without the benefits of gravity and natural light has been difficult. Veggie, a chamber that has been used to grow lettuce and other plants on the space station since 2014, feeds the plants in porous ceramic clay instead of soil and uses wicks to guide the water to the roots.
A NASA team planted 48 pepper seeds on Earth with a fertilizer designed specifically for peppers and sent them to the space station on a SpaceX cargo resupply mission. In July, astronauts began watering them and pollinating some of the flowers; Some of the plants developed fruit, which was harvested for tacos and will be back in November, NASA said.