Your mission, should you choose to accept it: space food

How do you make pre-packaged, vacuum-packed food enticing? Are there more efficient ways to produce food in remote locations, like on the moon, or a manned mission to Mars?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to develop food production technologies that will help support long-duration missions in space, but also benefit people on Earth.

The Deep Space Food Challenge is a joint prize competition launched in parallel by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the National Aeronautics and the Space Administration (NASA) Centennial Challenges Program, and their allied organization, the Methuselah Foundation.

Among the panelists for a recent live event were:

  • Dr. Grace Douglas, lead scientist for advanced food technology at Johnson Space Center;
  • Dr. Scott Smith, nutritionist and manager for nutritional biochemistry at Johnson Space Center;
  • Natalie Hirsch, project officer, operational space medicine, CSA;
  • Dr. Don Thomas, former NASA astronaut; and,
  • Colonel Jeremy Hansen, Canadian astronaut, who has led missions to the ocean floor and the Canadian arctic.

“You don’t go to space for the food,” said Don Thomas during the event; there are legitimate concerns about the psychology of eating in space, but also more practical concerns, such as shelf-life and nutrition. Packaging food to keep fresh for long periods — up to years before it might be eaten — is one challenge. Refrigeration and the restrictions of a closed system is another.

Through the challenge, innovators will develop compact and novel advanced food production solutions that have the potential to further enhance local food production, reduce supply chain shortages, and reduce the impact on the resources needed for food production in extreme environments, disaster-affected areas, and resource-scarce regions.

Acceptability, safety, resource inputs and outputs, and reliability and stability are key performance criteria for potential missions to the moon or to Mars, but are also key considerations for competitors in the Deep Space Food Challenge.

Tying into the psychology of feeding people off-Earth is providing variety. “One of the reasons that we provide Canadian food is that it just increases that variety, and encourages our astronauts to meet the energy requirements that they have,” says Natalie Hirsch.

Jeremy Hansen pointed out the food pressures felt in areas like Canada’s north, and that transportation costs contribute to the problem. The cross-over of the potential technologies coming out of the Deep Space Food Challenge could apply to the north, or for military applications.

The challenge consists of four phases: a design report, a kitchen demonstration, a full systems demonstration, and the announcement of the grand prize winner. There are cash prizes for each phase along the way in the competition. The first phase of the competition is set for completion by September of this year.

NASA Centennial Challenges program will be supporting U.S. Teams, while the CSA and Impact Canada will be supporting Canadian teams, with a third option for international participants to join in for recognition awards.

The Deep Space Food Challenge is accepting applications until July 30, 2021 and more information can be found on the website here.

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