Growing Peppers on the ISS Is Just the Start of Space Farming

The chile peppers thrived in a controlled microgravity environment. But to develop agriculture away from Earth, NASA will have to think outside the box.

1/22/2022 10:30:00 PM

While controlled environmental agriculture is not new, this experiment is an evolution in specialized growth habitats. It's not looking to re-create Earth’s conditions, instead it seeks to perfect each isolated plant variable in a spaceship environment.

The chile peppers thrived in a controlled microgravity environment. But to develop agriculture away from Earth, NASA will have to think outside the box.

team of engineers and plant scientists are observing and conferring with the astronauts. Of the 26 peppers in this batch, only the 14 finest will stay on the International Space Station for consumption. The rest will be wrapped in foil, sealed in a Ziploc bag, then frozen at a brisk –80 degrees, until they can come roaring back to Earth in the next cargo capsule to be studied later. Now, after a 138-day growth cycle, the astronauts remove the plants from the module and trash them. Project Plant Habitat-04 is complete. It’s taco night on the ISS.

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Plant Habitat-04 team of engineers and plant scientists are observing and conferring with the astronauts. Of the 26 peppers in this batch, only the 14 finest will stay on the International Space Station for consumption. The rest will be wrapped in foil, sealed in a Ziploc bag, then frozen at a brisk –80 degrees, until they can come roaring back to Earth in the next cargo capsule to be studied later. Now, after a 138-day growth cycle, the astronauts remove the plants from the module and trash them. Project Plant Habitat-04 is complete. It’s taco night on the ISS. Since 2014, NASA has experimented with growing lettuces, brassicas, and zinnias in space, an endeavor that relies on highly specialized technology over 50 years in the making. This fall’s two successful pepper harvests, in October and November, will provide data on the nutritional and psychological benefits of growing vegetables on-craft, as well as a crop’s ability to reliably produce long-term in microgravity. While controlled environmental agriculture is not new, the APH experiment represents an evolution in specialized growth habitats. It doesn’t aim to re-create Earth’s conditions, but to perfect each isolated variable of plant growth in the clinical environment of a spaceship. “The advanced plant habitat is the most complex plant growth system on orbit today,” says Lashelle Spencer, a plant scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Its more than 180 sensors control and monitor temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. The astronauts can adjust the color and intensity of the light, and how much moisture the plants’ roots are getting. It waters itself. It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and Spencer has been at Kennedy since 5 am to facilitate the peppers’ final harvest. As part of the project team, she played a crucial role in preparing the seeds that were sent hurtling into space in July and guiding the astronauts through maintaining the plants in orbit. When the fruits return, she’ll be running their microbiological, molecular, genetic, and nutritional analysis. Though astronauts can spend upwards of 100 days in space, their on-mission meals come dehydrated and pre-packaged; their vitamins and minerals are isolated in supplements, which lose nutritional value the longer they’re stored. Spencer’s goal is to create the conditions necessary for cultivating healthy plants in space, so those plants can sustain healthy astronauts on long-term missions. Astronaut food is great, she says—“especially the shrimp cocktail. But you're missing that crunch. You're missing that fresh pop of flavor, the green flavors that's not there in that packaged food.” Photograph: Ben Smegelsky/NASA The sensory experience of growing productive crops can also help mitigate the psychological effects of long-term space travel. There’s a certain emotional connection to food that doesn’t come from a dehydrated space pantry. Spencer says the team cracked open the door of the APH every day to observe their vegetable companions with all the tenderness of home gardeners. When harvest day came, they batted their bounty around the ISS, taking selfies and delighting in watching the fruits pirouetting around the spacecraft. Even when the sharp heat of that first bite made them scrunch up their faces, the astronauts still reveled in the chiles, which they ate with fajita beef and rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes. “We were thinking no heat, so that [the peppers] wouldn’t be dangerous, but maybe the astronauts need a little spice in their life,” says Paul Bosland, who along with his colleagues at the Chile Pepper Institute genetically engineered the Española Improved chile pepper seeds grown in Plant Habitat-04. (They are the new extraterrestrial pride of New Mexico.) Working with NASA, Bosland cultivated a variety that could accommodate both the nutritional needs of astronauts as well as the logistics of growing a plant in space. Bosland’s crosses are designed with Mars in mind: Bred to be early-maturing, compact, efficient under low light, resilient in low-pressure environments, and to pack three times the Vitamin C of an orange to prevent scurvy. Every aspect of the plants’ growth cycle was mechanized. Seeds were planted along with a specially-developed fertilizer in a soil-less, arselite clay medium, and each quadrant was equipped with salt-absorbing wicks that protected the seedlings from scorching due to the saline residue of the fertilizer. Once they germinated, the astronauts thinned the plants until only four remained. The 180-plus sensors controlled every aspect of their growth conditions, including adjusting the colors of the lights to stunt their growth and keep them at a manageable two-foot height. Despite the highly-controlled growing environment, microgravity affected the plants in some unforeseen ways. Without a gravitational tug, the flowers and their pollen-laden stamen grew facing upward. Ironically, that thwarted how the APH was supposed to pollinate them—by using fans that pulsed soft bursts of air meant to mobilize pollen, the way a breeze would. Instead, astronauts had to fill in as knock-off bees, manually pollinating them one plant at a time. Microgravity also posed challenges to watering. As demonstrated by the Canadian Space Agency , water behaves differently in microgravity than on Earth. Unable to fall, flow, or ascend, water creates an aqueous layer enveloping the surface of whatever it clings to. But clingy water can suffocate a plant’s roots; as Bosland notes, “chile peppers don’t like their feet wet.” This was one of the challenges APH engineer and Kennedy Space Center research scientist Oscar Monje had to solve. The system recycled water in a closed loop; the entire experiment used approximately the same amount of water as an office water cooler. Moisture sensors regulated the exact amount that adhered to a root’s surface. Then any water unabsorbed by the plant would evaporate after humidity sensors created the arid environment peppers crave. It’s not a technology that’s ready to roll out on say, the moon or Mars. “The APH uses a watering system that's not sustainable for crop production right now. But it's good enough for conducting space biology experiments,” Monje says. That said, he’s already thinking about ways to adapt farming to surfaces of other planets, like by reusing organic material. “As we move toward Mars, instead of bringing that nutrient solution all the way from the Earth, we have to start recycling some of the biomass that's inedible,” he says. “For example, the peppers, we only need the pepper. But the leaves or stems, the roots, maybe we can squeeze some of those nutrients back out.” Methods like composting food waste or burning inedible plant matter for biochar production might then recycle nutrients back into a closed-loop growing habitat. Bioregenerative practices are the name of the game for long-term space crop production. The challenges astronauts face to farm in space are steep, from