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New Mexico chile is blasting into space

Jacob Torres in a microgravity test bed at the Kennedy Space Center. The Española native suggested Española chiles for NASA’s testing of fruited plants. A hybrid plant called ‘Española Improved’ is scheduled to be sent to the International Space Station. (Courtesy of Jacob Torres)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

To boldly go where no chile has gone before … .

With input from an Española native and NASA researcher, a hybrid version of an Española chile plant has been selected to be grown in space. The New Mexico chile is tentatively scheduled to be launched to the International Space Station for testing in March 2020.

Jacob Torres, a 1997 McCurdy High School graduate, is part of a NASA group testing how to produce food beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Growing plants in space has been one of NASA’s priorities for decades, said Torres, a technical and horticultural scientist in the Kennedy Space Center’s Plant Life and Utilization Sciences division in Florida.

Now, with NASA’s goals of new moon landings and sending humans to Mars, Torres said the work is especially pertinent. Some of the packaged food made for astronauts is known to diminish in nutritional value over time.

“Which means that if we do go on a deep space mission, or we do go to the moon or a mission to Mars, we will have to figure out a way to supplement our diets,” he said. “Understanding how to grow plants to supplement the astronaut’s diet would be essential to our mission to going to Mars. So that kind of fuels our research that we’re doing now.”

The pepper going to space has an Española name, but is bipartisan when it comes to the long-running debate over whether northern New Mexico chile is better than Hatch-grown, from the southern part of the state.

The “Española Improved” chile plant, a cross between a northern New Mexico seed and the popular Sandia seed from the Hatch Valley, will be the first fruiting plant that the U.S. will grow aboard the Space Station. NASA’s astronauts have previously grown greens, and a zinnia bloomed in space in 2016.

Torres said the point of sending the chiles into space is to demonstrate how NASA’s Advanced Plant Habitat – which recreates environmental needs for plant growth like Co2, humidity and lighting – works not only for leafy greens, but for fruiting crops, as well.

Many plants that produce fruit typically require pollen from the male flower of one plant to be transferred to the female flower of another plant. Because bees and other pollinators don’t exist in space, Torres said the NASA team has focused their interest on self-pollinating fruiting plants, like tomatoes and pepper plants, “where the astronaut can just shake the fruit and pollinate it.”

Torres has worked in the Plant Life and Utilization Sciences Division since last June when he arrived at the Kennedy Space Center as an intern. He became a full-time, contracted scientist in December 2018.

He had worked in the restaurant industry – at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, Nevada, opening restaurants for actor/comedian Bill Murray and managing an Orlando restaurant before it was ruined in a hurricane – before he returned to Española and started attending college in 2008.

He received an associate’s degree from Northern New Mexico College, and from there went to New Mexico State University on a scholarship, where he earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering technology. He also has a master’s degree in the same field from Purdue University, which he earned in May after already starting his job at NASA.

The team that Torres is part of had already been testing Hatch chile crops when he joined last summer. The Hatch chiles typically take approximately 80-120 days to mature, which led the team on a search for a pepper that grows faster.

Torres knew something about chiles from working with the New Mexico Chile Association while at NMSU. He and a group of students were tapped to create a de-stemmer to help local chile farmers reduce labor costs.

At NASA, Torres remembered differences between Hatch and Española chiles, specifically in harvesting time. The growth period for an Española chile is 70-90 days.

“Because we are at a higher elevation (in northern New Mexico), our summer isn’t as long, so our pepper has to grow and mature faster,” he said. So he suggested that growing Chimayó or Española chile “could probably take some time off of the growth requirement.”

The team now plans to send up the Española Improved seeds provided by NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute.

Matthew W. Romeyn, NASA’s lead scientist on the pepper project, said in an emailed statement that the group chose the Española-Sandia hybrid because of the shorter growth cycle, as well as its ability to thrive within the smaller confines of the Advanced Plant Habitat. The growth period may be longer in space.

Green or red?

“As a bonus, the Española Improved is one of the few chile pepper cultivars from the Hatch Valley that is also regularly consumed red, so we can leave it to the crew to decide if they would like their chile peppers green or to wait for the fruit to fully ripen to red,” Romeyn said.

Does Torres have a preference between Hatch or Española?

“I’m not gonna pick sides on that one,” he said with a laugh.

“I am non-discriminatory toward peppers,” he joked. “I love them all. They’re all good in their own ways. I don’t even discriminate against the Colorado peppers. I am equal pepper opportunity person.”

Several factors make peppers in general a particularly good crop for testing. Torres cited chiles’ high concentrations of vitamin C, six times higher than in oranges. The lack of gravity in space can give astronauts the feeling of having a cold, and as anyone who has had a particular hot New Mexican dish knows, the spicy kick of chiles is known to help mitigate symptoms like loss of taste and congestion.

And chiles could even boost morale, Torres said, when astronauts have something tasty and different from the pre-packaged meals.

“Just by having something fresh to eat, a type of crop you grew yourself, being away from home for a long time, that picks up your morale, it brings positivity and adds to the mission that you’re doing,” he explained. “That’s one important aspect of the research that we’re doing.”

When the seeds are launched and planted on the Space Station, the research team will follow how the plants are growing. Romeyn said NASA will look for physiological responses and any chemical differences between plants grown on Earth and in orbit, particularly the levels of spiciness and vitamin C. Once harvested, the chiles will be frozen, then analyzed on their return to Earth.

Ultimately, Torres said, the goal of the project is “to see how the pepper plant behaves in space, and can it be a candidate or something to add into a nutritional diet or maybe a future supplemental diet at the moon or eventually Mars?”

Torres is excited about a version of his hometown chiles being launched into orbit and the “positive attention” the project is bringing to northern New Mexico.

“We know that a lot of the news that comes out of there isn’t always the greatest, and it’s awesome to be a source of something positive coming out of northern New Mexico, and I’m a part of it,” he said. “It means everything to me.”

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