The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is prepared to pay $500,000 for a good idea to help feed astronauts on long-term space missions with something other than dried, packaged food from Earth.
The space agency has set a July 30 deadline on its Deep Space Food Challenge, when it will choose a winning idea. The Canadian Space Agency launched a similar challenge with phased awards totaling $500,000 that will result in a grand prize winner in 2024.
NASA needs new ideas for food that make the best use of limited resources and generate as little waste as possible, said Grace Douglas, NASA lead scientist for advanced food technology at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“NASA has knowledge and capabilities in this area, but we know that technologies and ideas exist outside of the agency,” Douglas said in an interview. “Raising awareness will help us reach people in a variety of disciplines that may hold the key to developing these new technologies.”
Douglas wrote a paper in 2020 with two colleagues, published in the Journal of Nutrition, that outlined the problems astronauts face with food boredom aboard the International Space Station.
“Resupply vehicles arrive several times a year, bringing some fresh fruits and vegetables and some semi-shelf-stable specialty items. Astronauts report that these deliveries provide profound psychological benefits,” according to the paper, titled Space for Food for Thought: Challenges and Considerations for Food and Nutrition on Exploration Missions.
The paper also outlines methods NASA has tried to produce food in space, including the limited cultivation of greens and radishes. Other experiments included the use of yeast to grow nutrients that could supplement astronaut diets. But none of those experiments provided a significant volume of food.
According to NASA records, Apollo astronauts demanded that lunar capsules come with hot water to hydrate meals, but Douglas warns that NASA might not be able to provide that for deep space missions longer than 10 days.
NASA plans to return astronauts to the moon in 2024, although that date is questionable to a lack of congressional funding. The space agency also has long-term goals to land people on Mars, but believes the fastest possible roundtrip of a crewed vessel would be around 250 days – meaning resupply would be nearly impossible.
Producing food with minimal resources and waste is a challenge on Earth, as well, especially for remote polar or desert regions, Douglas said.
“The spacecraft environment is faced with even tighter resource restrictions [than Earth environments] … due to the size of the spacecraft and limitations on launch mass,” she said.
Another major problem for deep space food production is just the time it takes to grow and prepare food, Douglas said. On a trip to the moon or Mars, the crew will be busy with science goals and spacecraft maintenance.
“Food systems must consistently provide high-quality food that crew look forward to preparing and consuming after a long day of work,” Douglas said.