Astronaut food has come a long way from freeze-dried powders. Now, space travelers are even growing some of their own food. The latest advance in this direction is growing chile peppers, which the astronauts have added to tacos to spice up space.
Long-duration space missions will definitely benefit from freshly grown food. The days when sailors on long voyages died of scurvy may be gone now we know which vitamins we need to supplement, but growing food on board makes for a much more pleasant diet. It also means much less weight that needs to be launched into space, and antioxidants would reduce the damage from radiation exposure.
Consequently, NASA is experimenting with growing foods on the International Space Station, announcing in July they had planted Hatch chile peppers in one of the three plant growth chambers.
Growing seeds in microgravity isn't always easy, but the peppers flourished. They were helped by pampering – for example, fans in the Advanced Planet Habitat (APH) were carefully adjusted to agitate their flowers to exchange pollen, and supplementary hand pollinating.
Despite all this, the peppers produced less fruit than would be expected on the ground, for reasons yet to be explained.
Nevertheless, output was sufficient for some seeds to be harvested, so the astronauts will be able to produce a second generation of peppers. Other peppers were assigned to either be eaten on board, or returned to Earth for analysis.
Mark Vande Hei, one of the seven astronauts aboard, had the honor of performing the harvest. Megan McArthur, the last person to handle the Hubble Telescope during a repair mission and now on her second spaceflight, took full advantage to make a space taco using still-green peppers.
The peppers were grown inside the APH, a plant incubator about the size of an oven. The beef was brought from Earth – soon, perhaps, the tomatoes will be fresh not rehydrated, but raising cattle in space is probably further off.
Tortillas are a staple food on board because they produce fewer crumbs than other breads, reducing a major inconvenience of life in low gravity.
Starting in 2016 NASA has succeeded in growing lettuces, cabbage, mustard, and kale in space, although not yet simultaneously to produce a salad.