How New Mexico chiles ended up on the space station

A NASA mission to harvest Hatch green chiles in space just might help farmers on earth adapt their growing methods.

 
  • A green chile floats above a cutting board as astronauts conduct a taste test after the first harvest in October. A new crew will conduct a final harvest of the peppers in late November.

    Courtesy of NASA
  • A taco made by ISS astronauts uses fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes, and freshly harvested New Mexico chile peppers.

    Courtesy of NASA
  • NASA astronaut Megan McArthur cleans up debris in the International Space Station’s Plant Habitat, which is growing New Mexico chiles for a space crop experiment. The chile peppers started growing on July 12, 2021. The experiment is one of the longest and most challenging plant experiments attempted aboard the orbiting laboratory.

    Courtesy of NASA

As the chile season winded down in New Mexico’s Hatch Valley, the harvest continued 250 miles above earth on the International Space Station. In a first for space gardening, an astronaut picked exactly seven mature peppers in late October. On social media, the American crew, along with their international colleagues, celebrated the harvest and shared photos and videos of the dark-green fruits floating in microgravity, where people and objects appear to be weightless. They even threw a taco party seasoned by the inaugural crop of space-grown chiles.

Their journey started in the summer when 48 chile seeds boarded a spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After entering the International Space Station, they were transferred to an oven-sized growth chamber, where LaShelle Spencer, the project’s science team lead, and her colleagues at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) remotely controlled lighting, temperature and irrigation. Over the course of a few months, the astronauts on board trimmed the plants, removed debris and managed the miniature chile field. 

“It was a real treat for us,” said NASA astronaut Megan McArthur during a press call she took in space. “We could come and smell the plant, and see the chiles growing. So it’s really been a nice morale boost, as well as an interesting science project.”

The ongoing chile experiment, nicknamed “Hatch to ISS” by NASA, is part of a larger effort to explore the possibility of growing more fresh fruits and vegetables in space to supplement the astronauts’ packaged food-infused diet. The experiment is one of the most challenging to date because of the long germination and growing time of Capsicum annuum, the scientific name for chile peppers. 

Jacob Torres, a technician and horticulturist with NASA hailing from northern New Mexico, helped evaluate the seed used in the experiment. It’s called NuMex Española Improved, and is an early-maturing, medium-heat variety that is widely cultivated around Hatch, New Mexico. In the testing phase, this pepper outperformed other contenders in its ability to adapt to high levels of carbon dioxide and the microgravity of outer space while maintaining a desirable flavor and nutrition profile. “Not only did it have a champion in New Mexico, but it also did very well during our screening tests in a space cabin-like environment,” said Spencer.

Torres felt proud to work on the project. “To be part of this team and work on the New Mexican chiles I grew up eating really means everything to me,” he said in a video interview. And the space experiment surpassed his expectations. “Our mission was to grow one pepper. One successful pepper. And now we had seven in just the first harvest,” Torres added.

Another harvest will take place just after Thanksgiving, according to Spencer. Among that new batch of peppers, some will be sent back to earth for a nutritional and food safety analysis. Spencer is unsure if microgravity will add a unique flavor to the signature medium heat, but she thinks the experiment will advance the technology for growing chiles in controlled, indoor settings that use significantly less water.

“When we were touring New Mexico to select seeds, farmers in Hatch told us that they were worried about the impact of climate change and the drought on their chiles,” Spencer said. “Perhaps a controlled environment with limited water and electricity input, like the one we have up there, could save the chiles.”

Wufei Yu is an editorial fellow at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to state just one astronaut picked the chile peppers, and that the astronauts traveled in a spacecraft not a space shuttle.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....