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Chile forges a new path

A green chili pepper from New Mexico floats as Expedition 66 crew members aboard the International Space Station taste the space-grown crop. On Friday, New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte thanked the NASA team for their work promoting the state’s iconic crop. (Courtesy of NASA)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s chile is out of this world. Not really.

NASA scientists and state agriculture experts gathered virtually Friday to celebrate the team that grew New Mexico’s chile aboard the International Space Station.

A group of “Hatchstronauts” harvested the peppers last fall.

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur spent 200 days aboard the ISS and helped cultivate the cosmic harvest.

McArthur said it was “a joy” to have green plants growing in the space station’s sparse, mechanical environment.

The chili harvest also lifted astronauts’ diets with a taco night.

“We had them for dinner, for breakfast, as much as we could until they were all gone,” McArthur said.

Jacob Torres, a NASA scientist from Española who worked on the project, said it was the longest plant experiment ever in space.

It has also produced the most products of any space farming company.

“As we were evaluating what crop or fruit we could grow, it became apparent that peppers would be a good option for how they pollinate and how they grow and their nutrient content,” he said. Torres.

The team ate all the peppers from the first harvest in October.

A green pepper grown aboard the International Space Station. The New Mexico chili pepper grew for months and was harvested and eaten by NASA astronauts. (Courtesy of NASA)

During the second harvest, the crew ate chili peppers and then saved a dozen chili peppers for NASA testing.

Fruits are a good source of vitamins for astronauts on long space missions.

Growing crops can also prove to be good for the mental health of the crew.

“Those are the building blocks of the missions we’re going to do in the future,” McArthur said. “We are going to be away from home, we are going to be in more isolated conditions and it will take even longer before we return. And so this kind of thing that connects us to our home planet is going to be even more important.

The plant’s habitat was controlled remotely from the Kennedy Space Center.

Scientists have used fans to create a breeze and help plants pollinate and produce fruit.

The space station crew also hand-pollinated flowers.

McArthur tried his own experiment playing Red Hot Chili Peppers songs to growing plants.

New Mexico State University developed the hybrid pepper that was grown in space.

NuMex Española Enhanced Pepper is a hybrid of Hatch Sandia and Española varieties.

Torres and the team visited farms in New Mexico and grew several types of crops on Earth before choosing Chile for the space mission.

“For students and kids trying to think about what they’re going to do with their future, the fact that they can see us growing peppers in space is just amazing,” Torres said.

Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte thanked the team for taking New Mexico Chile to new heights.

“You create this opportunity to really expand the scope of agriculture, food and human habitat by doing these experiments in space,” Witte said. “You’re really paving the way for this next generation.”

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur tends to a crop of New Mexico chili peppers grown on the International Space Station. The project was the longest plant experiment ever conducted in space. (Courtesy of NASA)