The International Space Station (ISS) astronauts threw a taco party on Friday to celebrate the harvest of the first chile peppers that were actually grown in space.
After launching the plant experiment on the space station in July, the crew finally had the pleasure of having space tacos topped with chile peppers on the menu.
And it's safe to say that outer space has just got a bit more delicious.
A spicy space mission
The peppers are part of a NASA experiment called Plant Habitat-04, which aims to determine what foods can be grown in space. Back in June, forty-eight seeds were launched in a carrier on a resupply flight to the space station, and the carrier was put inside the lab's Advanced Plant Habitat, which is the size of a microwave, to kick off the project. However, while previous experiments had succeeded in growing lettuce, radishes, and flowering zinnias, peppers were the trickiest yet, since they take much longer to grow, germinate, and yield fruit than the others.
After a four-month wait, astronauts finally got to taste the fruits of their labor before gathering data on the red and green peppers that were harvested. NASA astronaut Megan McArthur tweeted on Friday that the crew tasted the peppers and that she used them in tacos along with fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes, and artichokes. "Friday Feasting!" she wrote on Twitter, sharing photos of what she calls her "best space tacos yet."
Friday Feasting! After the harvest, we got to taste red and green chile. Then we filled out surveys (got to have the data! 😁). Finally, I made my best space tacos yet: fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes & artichokes, and HATCH CHILE! https://t.co/pzvS5A6z5u pic.twitter.com/fJ8yLZuhZS— Megan McArthur (@Astro_Megan) October 29, 2021
Feeding astronauts is no easy task
The chile pepper experiment is part of a larger effort to increase the number of crops that astronauts can grow in space during future missions, as feeding astronauts on the Moon, and especially on faraway destinations like Mars, will be a massive logistical challenge with bigger payloads requiring more propellant and longer delivery times. Furthermore, storing packaged goods for an extended length of time degrades food quality, reducing the amount of essential nutrients such as Vitamin C and Vitamin K.
With experiments like these, NASA can help establish possible food sources for long missions and understand more about plant-microbe interactions in space.
But why peppers? Well, the modest pepper was chosen since it contains several essential nutrients, is rich in Vitamin C, and gives a delicious diversity to crew menus, a NASA release states.
As a result of living in zero gravity, astronauts tend to lose some of their sense of taste and smell, which is why spicy or well-seasoned foods are particularly popular among them. Adding fresh greens or peppers to the menu allows astronauts to spice up their daily meals while also improving their overall health.
The chile pepper plants will continue to grow aboard the ISS, and the SpaceX Crew-3 astronauts, who are scheduled to fly this month from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will undertake a second harvest once they arrive. On the other hand, some of the peppers will be returned to Earth for research, and scientists will investigate what kind of effects microgravity had on the plants and peppers.
"The combination of microgravity, light quality, temperature, and rootzone moisture will all affect flavor, so it will be interesting to find out how the fruit will grow, ripen, and taste," said LaShelle Spencer, project science team lead, in a statement. "This is important because the food astronauts eat needs to be as good as the rest of their equipment. To successfully send people to Mars and bring them back to Earth, we will not only require the most nutritious foods, but the best tasting ones as well."
It looks like astronauts will be able to munch on fresh chile peppers on future voyages to other planets as a spicy remembrance of our pale blue dot.