Chile peppers spread so quickly around the world because they grow easy. Now, they’ll take a giant leap… into space!

One of the best tricks of the chile peppers is that they are adaptable plants.

The Adaptable Chile Pepper

Really, in their American homelands, they are perennials (plants becoming woody and growing for years).

When they got to Europe, at the start of their worldwide spread, they often died off in the winters. But since that happened only after they had produced fruit (meaning, seeds to grow from the next year), they looked like annual plants.

Lo and behold, Carl Linné even named the dominant cultivated species Capsicum annuum.

Chile pepper species and varieties also exist in areas that range from tropical jungles to dry highlands. They grow well in fertile plains, but they will also make do with difficult conditions.

Adapting… to Space?

Now, after some leafy greens (and peas, but those don’t seem to count because they were grown by the Russians…), the Española chile pepper is to become the first fruiting plant to be grown in space.

As reported by e.g. ScienceAlert and CNN, NASA plans to attempt to grow this chile pepper on the International Space Station ISS from November of 2019.

The Española pepper variety was chosen because it grows at higher altitudes and therefore has a short growth period.

Why Chile Pepper?

A chilli has also been chosen for the other reasons that had already made them so popular and impactful in their global spread, as well:

Chilli provides a special kick, of course, that tantalizes taste buds – at least of those who have become used to its bite.

On Earth, this combined especially well with otherwise bland foods such as the rice of subtropical Asia.

One can only imagine how good a sweet and spicy kick would taste after a diet of astronaut food. Especially given that this food is known to still taste like cardboard in and of itself – and being in space apparently has even worse effects on the ability to taste than being on an airplane flight. (And we know how that goes…)

Chilli also combines with such food staples so well because it provides vitamins C and A; not a bad thing.

NASA Plant Habitat
NASA Plant Habitat

Why It Matters

We have not-so-few challenges to face here on Earth. With climate change, food security is likely to become a bigger issue again.

It is all the more useful to get reminders of how much plants matter, how much they are related to our physical and mental health.

Developments towards manned space flight, towards bases on the moon or exploration towards Mars, have been going hand-in-hand with looks at ecological life-support systems.

Plants could help with water and air (CO2-O2) recycling. Having something green and living around helps reduce anxiety. And of course, it’s all important for food and health!

Aside: China has a history of “space peppers”. There, however, it was just a program to create mutations in plant – not least, chile pepper – seeds by sending them into outer space, to develop new varieties. It seems to have worked rather well (at least with the results which are around)... but that’s a different story.