Feeding astronauts isn’t easy, but it’s only going to get harder.
While previous missions offered mostly pre-packaged menus prepared on Earth and launched into space, any longer journeys—to Mars, for example—will require a different approach. After all, a round-trip to the Red Planet could last between two and three years, so astronauts will have to cook and eat without costly deliveries of homegrown crops.
To tackle this problem, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency created the Deep Space Food Challenge, a contest to design sustenance for missions to remote regions of space. At a May event in New York City, they announced eight teams that have passed the second round of competition and will now advance to the final stage, with $750,000 in prizes awarded to the United States-based groups.
Challenge contestants have to address several key problems with their culinary innovations. First, any space food needs to use minimal ingredients and produce as little waste as possible. It has to be nutritious, and for the astronauts’ sakes, it should taste good, too. And the preparation must be simple, so the astronauts don’t divert too much time from their research.
Air Company, a Brooklyn-based firm, has come up with one of the finalist proposals: It can grow yeast using carbon dioxide and water, reports Reuters’ Steve Gorman.
We're preparing to send our astronauts farther into space than ever before and we need to keep them fed. Our @NASAPrize Deep Space Food Challenge called on solvers for help!— NASA Technology (@NASA_Technology) May 19, 2023
Here are the 8 winning teams who will compete in the final phase of the challenge:… pic.twitter.com/Re127AMOp0
The firm’s approach involves capturing carbon dioxide from the breath of astronauts, then using electricity to separate water (H2O) into hydrogen gas and oxygen. Plants use these components to make sugar in photosynthesis, but Air Company uses them to make alcohol.
“We do the same chemistry that plants do, except we do it much more efficiently,” Stafford Sheehan, co-founder of Air Company, tells NPR’s Juliana Kim.
The engineers then feed this alcohol to yeast, which in turn multiplies until it forms a nutritional yeast not so different from a protein shake. Sheehan tells NPR that, when flattened with a rolling pin, the yeast can also be used to make pasta or tortillas.
Other innovations among the contestants include systems to grow plants or insects in space. Florida-based Interstellar Lab produces small, greenhouse-like cubes that can be customized to grow a variety of potential ingredients for food, from mushrooms to salad greens—and even black soldier fly larvae, for protein powder, writes Scientific American’s Allison Parshall.
Dining has come a long way since the early days of space flight. Astronauts have never actually eaten the crumbly, freeze-dried creation called “astronaut ice cream,” because crumbs pose a hazard in space. In low gravity, they could fly around and land in astronauts’ eyes or damage important electrical equipment.
During the Apollo missions, astronauts munched on freeze-dried lumps of shrimp cocktail and fruitcake. In 1962, the orange drink mix Tang got a boost in popularity on Earth when NASA astronaut John Glenn consumed it in space.
More recently, astronauts on the International Space Station have been able to eat a variety of foods, including tortillas and meatloaf—and the shrimp cocktail remains popular.
Moving forward, space foods might rely more heavily on a surprising building block: fungi. Finalist companies including Kernel Deltech of Florida and Mycorena of Sweden presented technology to create edible fungal protein. Ralph Fritsche, senior project manager of NASA’s Space Crop Production, says the food competition results were “kind of like a wake-up call for me” about the promise of fungi, according to Scientific American.
Down the line, NASA and these companies imagine their creations feeding more than just astronauts—they hope the meals can combat food insecurity on Earth, especially in regions where it is difficult to grow crops. By being designed for the low-resource conditions of space, the innovations are all meant to have a low environmental impact.
“Every one of [these technologies] aims for sustainability,” Fritsche tells Scientific American. “I think that’s part of the beauty.”
Editor’s Note, June 21, 2023: This story has been updated to reflect that carbon dioxide and water feed Air Company’s yeast but do not create it.