Michelin Star Chef? How About Chef to Those Flying Through the Stars?

Pike-28 / shutterstock.com
Pike-28 / shutterstock.com

NASA’s latest challenge to encourage people to go after their dreams as well as keep them interested in space is underway. Dubbed the “Deep Space Food Challenge,” the first-of-its-kind challenge pares NASA with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) with the goal to get a big start on the future of space food systems for the moon, Mars, and more.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate has been instrumental in this unique idea coming to fruition. “As we prepare for long-duration human spaceflight, food is essential not only for nutrition but also familiarity and comfort on long voyages and in isolated environments. Drawing on the creativity of innovators is allowing us to tackle this important yet complex challenge in new and interesting ways.”

With phase one starting in January 2022, the winners from that phase as well as the previous phase 1 winners teamed up to build small-scale prototypes of their ideas. Focused on coming up with new technology to solve common problems, they needed to use as few resources as possible, create minimal waste, and come up with safe, healthy, and tasty food for the astronauts. With US and Canadian finalists each receiving $20,000 just for making it here, there were 8 finalists in the running.

• InFynity (Chicago, Illinois) is utilizing a fungi protein to prepare nutritious and delicious foods.
• Nolux (Riverside, California) is producing plant- and fungal-based food using artificial photosynthesis.
• Mu Mycology (Hillboro, Oregon) uses a closed-loop mushroom cultivation system allowing for scalable growth of various edible mushrooms.
• Kernel Deltech USA (Cape Canaveral, Florida) produces inactivated fungal biomass using a continuous cultivation technique.
• Interstellar Lab (Merritt Island, Florida) produces fresh microgreens, vegetables, mushrooms, and insects to provide micronutrients for long-term space missions.
• Far Out Foods (St. Paul, Minnesota) developed a nearly closed-loop food production system called the Exo-Garden that is capable of producing a variety of mushrooms and hydroponic vegetables.
• SATED (Boulder, Colorado), or Safe Appliance, Tidy, Efficient, & Delicious, cooks a variety of well-known foods from long-shelf-life ingredients.
• Air Company (Brooklyn, New York) developed a system that captures carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts, combined with hydrogen made with water electrolysis, to produce alcohol that is then fed to an edible yeast to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

Additionally, three teams from outside the US and Canada were recognized by NASA and CSA.
• Enigma of the Cosmos (Melbourne, Australia) created a food production system with an adaptive growing platform that could increase efficiency by at least 40%.
• Solar Foods (Lappeenranta, Finland) uses gas fermentation to produce single-cell proteins.
• Mycorena (Gothenburg, Sweden) developed a circular production system utilizing a mix of microalgae and fungi, resulting in a microprotein using minimal resources while generating minimal waste.

In addition to meeting needs for long-term deep space missions, the judges also considered the potential use of the technology here on Earth, where food insecurity is a significant problem in harsh environments,” explained Denise Morris, the Prizes Challenges, and Crowdsourcing program’s acting program manager for Centennial Challenges at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

US-based teams were asked to look at the future and to adapt their technology to develop a plan for the “power, mass, and volume in different environments; increase the variety to include more or different food outputs; and extend the stability of the ingredients and food outputs of their systems.” Team Hefvin (Bethesda, Maryland) went after this project headfirst, and received a $10k bonus for their innovations in growing fruit cells in nutrient-rich media, with their new berries being full of rich flavor, color, and aromas.

With Phase 2 getting underway, the technology and food outputs will be evaluated. A demonstration of how accessible and easy the food production is will determine their points as well as help decide the winners of the round. Each of the top five innovations will receive $150,000.

This mission between NASA and CSA is something that the countries should have been doing for ages. With space exploration not only fresh on people’s minds but also potentially salvation should things go really badly here, these innovations could mean the difference between mankind continuing or it coming to a smoldering end.