A Little Spice Added in Space: NASA to Grow Its First Fruit Plant Aboard the ISS

The Española chili pepper plant will be the first fruit plant to be grown by U.S. astronauts aboard the ISS.
Fabienne Lang

Soon it won't just be astronauts who are launched into space. The Española chili pepper will soon be joining the International Space Station's (ISS) rations as the first fruit plant to be grown in space by American astronauts. 

It comes at a crucial moment in American space exploration, as NASA looks to send astronauts to the planet Mars, it's now more vital than ever that the agency discovers which fruits and plants can travel into space during the journey. 


Why the Española pepper?

Growing plants in space is no easy task. The most suited plant is one that can easily and quickly pollinate, as well as be sturdy in a high carbon dioxide environment. 

Scientists have discovered that a number of peppers can do both of these things. 

The first growth test of crops in the Advanced Plant Habitat aboard the International Space Station yielded great results. Arabidopsis seeds - small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard - grew for about six weeks and dwarf wheat for five weeks. Source: NASA

Española peppers grow at high altitudes and have a shorter growing period -something that will come in handy while in space.

"We were looking for varieties that don't grow too tall, and yet are very productive in the controlled environments that we would be using in space," said NASA plant physiologist, Ray Wheeler.

Española Chili Plant. Source: Petr Kratochvil/NeedPix

Healthy-wise, these peppers are a great source of Vitamin C. It can be used to boost astronaut's immune systems. Zero-gravity sends most bodily fluids to the head, making astronauts feel as though they have a continuous cold, according to Jacob Torres, a NASA horticultural scientist.

John "JC" Carver, a payload integration engineer with Kennedy's Test and Operations Support Contract, opens the door to the growth chamber of the Advanced Plant Habitat Flight Unit No. 1 for a test harvest of half of the Arabidopsis thaliana plants growing within. Source: Leif Heimbold/NASA

Having observed them and applied similar growing techniques as what would happen in space, NASA is now expecting to jet them off into space between November and January at the end of the year. 

Why does NASA want to grow plants in space?

To begin with, after months of bland prepackaged cardboard-tasting food, astronauts will welcome a little bit of spice to their diets, and to their taste buds. We're all human after all. 

NASA's Matt Romeyn works in the Crop Food Production Research Area of the Space Station Processing Facility at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Source: Cory Huston/NASA

As Torres put it: "They would be able to fill their stomachs up, but they wouldn't have the nutrients to do their work". Being able to grow edible plants up in space would help astronauts mentally and physically all in one go. 

Furthermore, with NASA's ambitious plan of sending humans to Mars, a trip that could take anywhere between six months to two years, fresh food won't be easily sent up from Earth. 

'We can build all the rockets we want to go to Mars, but it won't work unless we have food to eat," said Torres.

"We need to grow enough to supplement diet," continued Torres. "Just like here on Earth, we can't live on the same thing."