It’s been a while since we last posted about plants in space. Let’s take a look at what’s growing up there at the moment.
On 12 July 2021, forty-eight Hatch chilli pepper seeds were planted in the ISS’s Advanced Plant Habitat, or APH. The APH is a chamber that’s based on the space station but monitored and controlled by a team on Earth, although the seeds were planted by an astronaut on the station itself, Shane Kimbrough of NASA.
The chilli peppers are expected to grow for about four months, making this one of the longest plant-growing experiments aboard the ISS. However, even if they don’t grow as quickly as some plants, the peppers have their own advantages as space food.
Many of us have experienced the restlessness of lockdown. When you’re in the same surroundings for a long time, you can start craving new foods and sights, and some of us have experimented with wild new hobbies or hairstyles for a bit of variety.
In a way, being in space is similar to being on lockdown; the Financial Times touched on the parallels between the two in an article from late 2020. On long space missions in unchanging surroundings, brightly coloured plants and powerfully flavoured foods may help to prevent a sense of monotony from sinking in.
Beyond monotony, there’s another reason for the popularity of spicy foods amongst astronauts. In space, astronauts can find that their sense of taste is dulled.
ESA explores this in a worksheet for educators, which sets out a couple of potential reasons for this. Without gravity to draw it down, fluid in the human body can block the nasal passages for a person’s first few days in space, reducing astronauts’ sense of smell and therefore their sense of taste. In the longer term, the other smells of a confined space like the ISS may overwhelm the smell of food.
On account of this blandness, hot sauce is apparently popular on the ISS. Back in 2009, Scientific American reported on this with a great little anecdote:
It’s possible that hot sauce and salsa could be key ingredients to the success of a manned mission to Mars. The kicked-up condiments already came close to causing a mutiny on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2002 when astronaut Peggy Whitson threatened to bar entry to the crew of the visiting shuttle Atlantis unless they came bearing a promised resupply of the spicy stuff. Only when shuttle commander Jeff Ashby announced that he had the goods did Whitson say, ‘Okay, we’ll let you in then.’ Whitson was joking, but the need for astronauts to be able to spice up their food while in orbit is no laughing matter.
In an environment where foods generally taste bland, it makes sense to seek out strong flavours. This means that, in some ways, chilli peppers are an ideal candidate for growing in space.
You may have noticed that these arguments for chilli peppers focus on the enjoyment of the astronauts, rather than nutritional content. Keeping astronauts well fed is essential, but it’s also hugely important to look after their psychological wellbeing.
A person’s psychological health, in addition to being important in itself, can impact on their physical health. As NASA writes in a 2021 post ‘How Does Spaceflight Change Food Appeal?’, loss of appetite for psychological reasons can create health issues if astronauts consequently don’t eat enough.
At first thought, it might seem sensible to focus solely on quick-growing, high-calorie crops when you’re growing plants in space. However, it’s important for astronauts to have varied, enjoyable meals, not just food that can sustain them. By spreading the work of testing crops, the AstroPlant project makes it possible to establish a greater variety of potentially space-suited plants.
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For more about growing plants in space, return to our AstroPlant page.