The future of space food is taking an intriguing turn as researchers explore unconventional solutions such as protein shakes made from astronaut breath and burgers crafted from fungus. For years, astronauts have relied on pre-packaged meals or the occasional harvested lettuce during their space missions. However, with aspirations of venturing beyond Earth’s orbit, NASA has initiated a competition aimed at revolutionizing sustainable space food. As missions to Mars and the moon become increasingly feasible, the challenge seeks to develop a food system capable of supporting long-duration journeys and establishing a new era of nourishment in space.
The Deep Space Food Challenge:
Recognizing the limitations of the current pre-packaged food system, NASA launched the Deep Space Food Challenge in January 2021. The competition invited companies to propose innovative methods for creating sustainable food options suitable for future space missions. After receiving approximately 200 entries, the selection process narrowed down the field to 11 teams in January 2023. Eight teams from the United States and three international teams were granted $20,000 each to advance to phase 3. On May 19, NASA revealed the finalists who will progress to the final phase, culminating in the announcement of winners in April 2024 following rigorous testing of their proposals.
Among the unique entries, Air Company, based in New York and one of the US finalists, adopted an unconventional approach. Their system utilizes the carbon dioxide expelled by astronauts in space to produce alcohol, which serves as a base for growing edible food. Air Company already specializes in developing alcohols from CO2 for aviation fuel and perfumes. By combining CO2, water, and electricity, they create proteins through fermentation. The resulting alcohol can be fed to yeast, generating a protein shake similar to vegan meat substitutes like seitan. The team described the taste as surprisingly pleasant, envisioning a continuous fermentation process in space to provide astronauts with on-demand protein shakes.
Another US-based finalist, Interstellar Lab in Florida, introduced a modular system called NUCLEUS. Comprising small, self-contained capsules, each capsule creates a controlled environment with specific humidity, temperature, and watering systems. This setup allows astronauts to cultivate various vegetables, and potentially insects such as black soldier flies, as a sustainable protein source. The goal is to bring elements of Earth’s ecosystem into space, enabling astronauts to grow mushrooms, insects, and microgreens simultaneously.
Paving the Way for Sustainable Space Food:
The Deep Space Food Challenge represents a significant leap toward achieving sustainable and self-sufficient food systems for long-duration space missions. By exploring innovative techniques, such as utilizing astronaut breath and incorporating modular cultivation systems, researchers are reimagining the future of space food. These breakthroughs hold the potential to enhance astronauts’ nutrition, reduce reliance on pre-packaged meals, and bring a sense of familiarity from Earth’s ecosystem to the confines of space. As the competition progresses and winners are announced, the dream of long-duration space exploration with sustainable and diverse food options draws closer to becoming a reality.
With the Deep Space Food Challenge at the forefront of innovation, space food is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Concepts like protein shakes created from astronaut breath and modular cultivation systems demonstrate the potential to provide astronauts with nutritious and sustainable meals during long-duration missions. As NASA and pioneering companies continue to push the boundaries of space food technology, the day when astronauts can rely on fresh, locally grown food in space draws nearer. These advancements not only address the challenges of sustenance during future space exploration but also pave the way for a more self-sufficient and sustainable approach to nourishing those who venture beyond Earth’s boundaries.
By Impact Lab