Astronauts celebrate record-breaking chile harvest in space with taco night

NASA astronaut Raja Chari holds a taco made with freshly harvested peppers grown aboard the International Space Station.

(CNN)While we were eating Thanksgiving leftovers and shopping sales on Black Friday, astronauts on the International Space Station had a special taco night to celebrate their second successful chile pepper harvest.

As with the first historic chile pepper picking on October 29, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei had the honor of completing the longest plant experiment in the history of the space station on November 26, 137 days after it began in July.
Although 12 of the peppers will be returned to Earth, the crew, including NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Dr. Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, sampled some of the 26 chile peppers grown from four plants.
    This experiment broke the record for feeding the most astronauts from a space-grown crop.
      Astronauts ate these fresh peppers after the second harvest.
      Plant Habitat-04 was one of the most complex plant experiments on the orbiting laboratory to date because peppers take much longer to grow than the previous experiments, which included various types of lettuce, flowering zinnias and even radishes.
      "PH-04 pushed the state-of-the-art in space crop production significantly," said Matt Romeyn, principal investigator for PH-04 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in a statement. "With this experiment, we took a field cultivar (plant variety) of a Hatch chile pepper from New Mexico, dwarfed it to fit inside the plant habitat, and figured out how to productively grow the first generally recognized fruiting crop in space -- all in a span of a couple years."
      During both harvests, the peppers were sanitized before the crew settled in to taste some of the red and green chiles and take surveys about the flavor and texture.
        Following the initial taste test of seven peppers on October 29, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur made her "best space tacos yet: fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes & artichokes, and HATCH CHILE!" the astronaut shared on Twitter.
        NASA astronaut Megan McArthur is seen with a taco made using fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes, and chile peppers.
        The rare fresh produce means more than just some dietary variety and excitement for the astronauts. The success of this experiment also has multiple scientific implications for the future of astronaut nutrition and long-duration space missions.
        "The level of excitement around the first harvest and the space tacos was unprecedented for us," Romeyn said. "All indications are some of the fruit were on the spicier side, which is not unexpected, given the unknown effect microgravity could have on the capsaicin levels of peppers." Capsaicin levels are used to determine the spiciness of a pepper.
        Other differences were noted about the space peppers. Their growth experienced a two-week delay and their stems were completely straight, rather than the curvature they normally have when growing on Earth, "which is definitely a microgravity effect," Romeyn said.

        Growing plants in space

        Humans have been living and working on the space station for 20 years. The bulk of their meals are prepackaged, though sometimes astronauts receive fresh treats from resupply missions. Those care packages, however, will be much more limited on longer deep space missions, including traveling to the moon or Mars.
        The longer that packaged food is stored, the more it loses nutrients like vitamin C and vitamin K.