NASA astronauts get a space pepper plant to celebrate anniversary

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station asked NASA to throw them the keys to a pepper plant they never could grow on Earth to celebrate their milestone anniversary, something which was made possible after a major NASA program that empowers small business owners for tech support was released into the wild.

U.S. astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian flight engineer Anatoly Ivanishin successfully launched a pepper plant, or tomato as they call it, on Tuesday from Kazakhstan and three hours later made it to the ISS.

The International Space Station has about 86,000 plants, growing specifically for human consumption. In reality, it is just a bit of a mouthful, but a group of college students and NASA students named OneReplace, got the ball rolling when they started developing the program and offered it for sale in 2011.

“Astronauts don’t have a lot of control over their plants, so if they didn’t have a way to send control units on the station, then they could not control their plants,” OneReplace Chief Technology Officer Wilson Carlen told

The goal is to make the communication process as simple as possible so that astronauts can get plants to grow as efficiently as possible.

“We have all these other astronauts and scientists and mechanics working there right now, so it is the perfect opportunity to do something innovative,” Carlen said.

On Aug. 1, 2015, however, OneReplace received a shocking reminder about their fellow astronauts’ intentions to take full advantage of the tool.

“We started seeing reports like, ‘Hey NASA astronauts are now picking peppers!’” Carlen said.

In fact, NASA astronauts have picked peppers on the ISS multiple times, but this was the first time that rocket science was used in the kitchen of the orbiting outpost.

In order to make sure that astronauts could get enough peppers, OneReplace grew 6,500 plants and cared for each one in order to harvest the best for their needs.

“Then they arrived on the space station on Aug. 1. As the day passed, we got more reports that the experiments were turning out and getting ready to go,” Carlen said.

Once the mission had been successfully launched, the astronauts used the system, which once it was successfully installed, integrated properly and released last month. Now those 6,500 plants are free to choose from, the astronaut crew has the ultimate say on which pepper it wants to use, regardless of the species.

“They have everything from tomatoes, to peppers, and they can actually grow pretty much any fruit from that. The perfect tomato plant on earth,” Carlen said.

OneReplace launched its program in 2011, and after enough early enthusiasm, NASA backed the project with a grant and was eventually able to release 1,200 command units for the zero gravity exchange. The $15,000 project was actually started in 2008 by Carlen, who is an associate professor of engineering at the University of Central Florida. The only problem, however, was that finding a company to manufacture it was harder than expected.

“NASA told us we were nuts to think about shipping our stuff back there, and they were interested in helping us try,” Carlen said.

After contacting several companies, OneReplace found a UK company called Semnan for a hybrid system with their own technology that they tested for six months. The company used yeast to convert sugars into key compounds that then would help in the achievement.

Once another seed was planted in the ground, the company did its own testing on 5,000 plants of which 95 percent grew their required nutrients, and 100 percent of them got nutrients even if the control plant died before they arrived.

In March 2015, Semnan launched the engineering hardware and introduced the system to the market. Since then, OneReplace has sold more than 100 hundred units.

“It is not really a perfect match as far as the hardware is concerned, because you have an electronics system, but the software is completely responsive and you can use your passion,” Carlen said.

Carlen and Semnan hope to bring other major diseases onto the space station, possibly polio, malaria and HIV.

“Our hope is to give that to them, and say hey, you won’t have to go to a hospital to get life-saving medicine. You will have it on a satellite phone,” Carlen said.

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