When it comes to feeding astronauts on long-duration space missions, several challenges arise. Firstly, the resources required to produce and preserve food such as water, energy, and storage space are limited. Additionally, food packaged on Earth must be freeze-dried before entering space which impacts taste, texture, and aroma.
Food entrepreneurs aim for the stars
To ensure that the nutritional and wellbeing needs of astronauts are fulfilled, food innovators from across the world are developing solutions to the challenge of producing quality food fit for space.
The Deep Space Food Challenge, a competition aiming to bring innovative food production technologies to space and on Earth in collaboration with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), recently announced its phase two finalists who will go on to compete for financial prizes and international recognition.
As well as revolutionising food in space, these innovations may also offer new possibilities for how we sustainably produce, procure, and consume food here on Earth.
“The selected finalists have a great range of technologies to produce and prepare food sustainably in a closed system like a spacecraft. In fact, the earth we live on is one giant spacecraft! And like any spacecraft it has limited resources; so many of these technologies have ‘on Earth’ applications,” said Tony Hunter, food futurist at Future of Food Consulting.
Food formed from astronauts’ breath
Brooklyn-based Air Company has developed a method of upcycling the carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts to produce edible yeast-based nutrients, which can be eaten on long-duration space missions.
The company’s proprietary technology works via a method of artificial photosynthesis, which converts CO2 into ethanol using hydrogen, water electrolysis, and solar electricity. The alcohol is then fermented with edible yeast to produce sugars, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates to support the astronauts’ nutrient requirements. Requiring only recycled CO2, water and renewable energy as inputs, Air Company’s products are completely carbon-negative and are already available to purchase in three formats: perfume, hand sanitizer, and vodka.
According to Hunter, Air Company’s solution, along with that from Finnish food tech startup Solar Foods, is among the most promising in the competition for on Earth application.
“That’s because they use no arable land or fresh water to grow protein and produce far less [greenhouse gas] GHG emissions than animal products. This means that countries with little of these natural resources can still develop a domestic, low pollution, food supply.”
A system to maximise limited space and resources
Developed by a team of engineers from Canadian company and Deep Space Food Challenge finalist Ecoation, CANGrow is an innovative modular polyculture indoor food production system.
The system operates via a polyculture approach in which multiple crops are grown together in one environment. This maximizes efficiency and resource utilisation while enhancing biodiversity. CANGrow can cultivate a diverse range of biologically efficient food products, including strawberries, cherry tomatoes, two root vegetables, microgreens, four culinary herbs, mini-head lettuce, an algae superfood, and a mycelial meat substitute known as "space bacon."
Utilising advanced technologies including hydroponics, aeroponics, and vertical farming, the system optimises space and resource efficiency, making it viable for closed system settings like spacecrafts. These methods enable plants to grow in a soil-less environment, using water and nutrient solutions, and require significantly less water compared to traditional farming methods.
Adobe / Adam Jan Figel
Space as a beacon of hope for future generations
Identified as an emerging trend for 2023 by Mintel, the theme of space is expected to inspire innovation and marketing, and pique consumer interest in the food and beverage industry in the years ahead.
Amid socio-political and environmental crises, consumers are growing increasingly concerned about the future. A survey conducted by Mintel last year revealed that 78% of US Gen Z adult constantly worry about the future, as well as 53% of US adults.
According to Hunter, humanity needs new technologies that require fewer nutrient inputs and are neither water-intensive nor land-intensive to produce the food it needs.
“The biggest problem we have is how to sustainably, healthily and equitably feed nearly 10 billion people in 2050 while staying within planetary boundaries. There’s not enough arable land or fresh water on the planet to simply scale current animal and crop agriculture,” Hunter said.
“Many of the technologies [presented in this challenge] meet these requirements and will be invaluable additions to the global food system.”
In the years to come, the younger generations will view space as an exciting destination, as well as a symbol of optimism, hope, and human progress, according to Mintel.
Recently, Coca-Cola launched its first Creations flavour innovation, Starlight, a new soft drink variety inspired by space. The Wrigley Company also incorporated space into its recent marketing campaign for soft chew sweets Starburst, which involved asking TikTok users to compete to send questions into space via SpaceSpeak technology – a ploy which attracted over 60 million views via the #beamitupstarburst hashtag.