Like all aspects of scientific progress, the space program has undergone significant changes over time. New technologies replace outdated systems, programs, shuttles, and suits to keep astronauts safe in space. It should be no surprise that this includes food, as well. After all, learning how to create food in space will be essential for future missions to Mars (and possibly beyond). To that end, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency are currently co-sponsoring the Deep Space Food Challenge, a contest to develop the next generation of space meals to feed astronauts on long missions.
An astronaut’s usual menu consists of prepackaged freeze-dried food brought from Earth. While suitable for short missions, this would be impractical and unsustainable for longer ones. Since a round-trip journey to Mars could potentially take up to three years, something has to be done about the food issue, as it wouldn't be possible for astronauts to bring such a vast quantity of prepackaged food on their mission.
The contestants who have made it to Phase 3 of the competition have already come up with some interesting solutions. One company proposes using carbon dioxide (from astronaut breath) and water to grow nutritional yeast, which can be turned into protein shakes, pasta, or tortillas. Other contestants have devised ways to grow plants, insects, and edible fungi in space.
There is hope that one day these innovative food ideas could also help solve the issue of food shortages on Earth caused by harsh conditions and natural and manmade disasters. Additionally, the contestants' efforts could result in more efficient food production methods that wouldn't contribute to global warming.
Yes to edible fungi, no to astronaut ice cream:
- The 8 finalist teams were announced by NASA in May, out of more than 300 entrants.
- Interestingly, the iconic "space ice cream" that you may have seen at theme parks and museum gift shops is not really astronaut food – it is far too crumbly and could be a danger in zero-gravity.
- The orange drink mix Tang got a massive popularity boost when NASA astronaut John Glenn drank it in space in 1962.