ESPANOLA – New Mexico’s most iconic products are going into outer space.
In the coming months, NASA scientists plan to fly with the Improved Chile NuMex Espaola to the International Space Station, where it will be part of an ongoing experiment to increase gravity-free crops and possibly eventually to Mars.
Espaola native Jacob Torres, a technical and horticultural scientist contracted to NASA, has spent the past two years working on the mission, known as PH04, and similar plant growth projects.
The mission is part of NASA’s long-term goal of landing on Mars by 2034 and eventually colonizing the red planet. For Torres, being part of such a revolutionary mission is a small step for the man, but a big step for his home community.
“If I can get to where I am now, anyone can do it,” Torres told Mexican Santa Fe New.
“We have been told ‘Espaola is the worst’, so we believe him,” he said. “There has to be someone on the opposite spectrum, saying ‘No, we are not.’ “”
Growing up, Torres said, he lacked motivation and “was not a good student at all.” In high school, he was expelled from local gang members, he was expelled from Espaola Public Schools and enrolled at McCurdy Charter School for his first year of high school.
After “barely graduating” in 1997, Torres decided to postpone college and move to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he traveled with tables to Hard Rock Cafe and later became a restaurant manager at the age of 20. Because most of his family worked in restaurants his grandfather, Juan Valencia, owned Espaola’s Johnny’s Bar icon, it seemed likely to go the same way.
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He went on to manage actor Bill Murray’s chain restaurant, Murray Bros. Caddyshack, in South Carolina and Florida for five years. But when a hurricane destroyed one of Murray’s newest restaurants just five months after it opened, Torres said “this was the catalyst that was like, ‘OK, time to move on, man.’
At age 27, Torres decided to return to school first for an associate degree at New New Mexico College to study renewable energy and automotive technology and then with a full scholarship to New Mexico State University for a bachelor in mechanical engineering.
After working at an oil refinery in Indiana, he applied for graduate school at Purdue University, where he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering technology.
During his second year of high school, Torres decided to apply for an internship at NASA, although the prospect of admission felt like a long blow.
“Everyone said I had no chance. I had a professor who literally said, ‘I don’t know why I’m wasting my time,'” Torres said. “It broke my heart, but it made me work harder.”
To his surprise, Torres caught NASA’s attention, largely because his grad school thesis was entirely focused on a technology called BioWall, an automated lighting and irrigation system that uses plants to filter air.
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“NASA was basically doing the same thing, but to increase the harvest for astronauts,” Torres said. “So when my application came, they said, ‘Oh, this is wonderful, an engineer who grows crops.’ “”
After completing the 10-week internship, Torres was invited to stay another four weeks. In late 2018, he was hired as a full-time contracted scientist at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida a few months before completing his thesis and graduating from Purdue.
“Looking at it now, it seems like there was a plan for me all the time. I just didn’t know what it was,” Torres said. “Almost it’s almost like I’m living a scenario.”
Growing plants for Mars
Torres, 40, is part of a team of about 20 NASA scientists dedicated to gravitationally growing plants a critical step toward the final colonization of Mars.
“We anticipate sending humans to the fourth planet by 2030,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “What looks like science fiction taking a crew to Mars, lowering them to the surface to explore and conduct experiments, and bringing them home safely is on the horizon.”
Before the first NASA astronauts land on the red planet, crews must do research to ensure that astronaut diets are supplemented during a two-year voyage. The trip to Mars is expected to take a minimum of six months, depending on the planet’s alignment, and the astronauts would spend about a year on Mars before returning home, Torres said.
Plant growth in space is not a new concept. Scientists began experimenting with partial growth in the 1960s and ’70s. “What’s new is the hardware we’re growing them into,” Torres said.
Previously, astronauts had about three days to germinate seeds, he said, “but now we have the ability to make full growth,” which allows astronauts to consume fully mature, nutrient-rich products.
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Torres said packaged meals will not last long enough to feed astronauts for two years because nutrients degrade over time. Plus, there are just so many packaged foods available, which causes meal fatigue.
“Can you imagine eating the same thing over and over again? We wanted to give them something fresh,” he said.
Another benefit of growing plants in space is the psychological benefit, said Matthew Romeyn, a scientist at NASA’s space crop production project. Being on a spaceship away from home for long periods of time can damage the mental health of astronauts and projects like these can be a positive way out of meaningful work, he said.
In these missions, “a plant can be a really good way for them to have something to do,” Romeyn said.
David Hanson, a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and an expert on plant physiology, worked on NASA’s initial PH01 mission. He said the astronauts, including Serena Auon-Chancellor, would “light up and delight everyone” while working with the PH01 cabbages.
“We connect with the Earth through plants far more than we realize,” Hanson said, adding that these interactions can ease the longing for home. “It’s clear the psychological value of growing plants up there. People argue whether (the act of growing a plant) is more important than the actual nutritional value.”
Selection of crops for space
Still, without pollinators like bees, there are biological limitations to what plants can grow and which variations will perform best.
So far, NASA has focused on growing things like lettuce, leafy greens and mizuno mustard, but is working to diversify that list. “If you’re an astronaut on Mars, you can’t just live with lettuce,” Torres said.
Although peppers are not self-pollinating, a grower can touch the flower or shake it to aid in fertilization. Since peppers also provide high levels of Vitamin C higher than many citrus fruits, they seemed like a great opportunity to grow outdoors, said Romeyn, who has been working on the project for five years.
The question is, “Which one do you grow? What species do you bring? There we scratch our heads,” Torres said.
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In the midst of its pepper research, NASA encountered New Mexico Hatch cements. In meetings around the harvest, Torres, still a practitioner at the time, suggested that they try other New Mexico fibers from top to north, as the strands at higher altitudes have evolved to grow faster than the typical 140- growth period. Daily of a Chilean Hatch. The goal then became to find a “Pepper like Hatch that ripens faster,” he said.
In August 2019, after performing a number of tests on Hatch, Espaola, Chimay and other strands from the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University, “we officially said that the Improved Espaola is ours,” Torres said. Of the more than 40 species variations the team tested, this Hatch-Espaola hybrid is the one that will grow into another phase of research.
“It’s the Chilean ambassador who represents all the peppers,” Torres said. “It’s not that this is the best species in the world. It means it’s the best species we can grow in this space environment we know about.”
Romeyn said chili has been fantastic because even before it is fully cooked, it can be consumed when the red peppers are still green.
For Torres, the whole process is hard to believe but not just for personal reasons. He hopes the success of this experiment will make all of New Mexico proud, especially the people from Espaola.
Aware of Rio Arriba County negative stereotypes, including alcoholism and opioid abuse, Torres said it is important to set a positive example for young people in the area. He hopes his story will teach others that they can overcome adversity and choose a better path.
“I have to change the future for these kids to come next, and that means making some noise,” he said. “You’re telling them, ‘Look, I’m from Espaola, and look what I’m doing. If I can do it, you can too. “
Olivia Harlow writes about Santa Fe New Mexican. This story was provided through a partnership with the Associated Press.
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