When we think of space food in the future, perhaps we will imagine a freshly baked pizza topped with vegetables grown on a spaceship replacing the powders and tubes of paste that astronauts consumed in the past.
New advancements in food technology could make zero gravity grub as healthy and delicious as any Earth-cooked meal, thanks to initiatives such as NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Program, which explores how 3D printing could be used to prepare fresh meals for astronauts.
All food for long-term deep space explorations must be pre-packaged and have a shelf life of 15 years or more, as refrigeration and freezing are not available. In addition, meals must be quick and easy to prepare since astronauts will rarely have time to cook.
3D printed food could meet all these requirements. The method dehydrates nutrient-filled ingredients into long-lasting powders that are mixed by a 3D printer with water or oil to rehydrate, and then cooked by the machine for a wholesome meal.
NASA has partnered with Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to make 3D printed space food a reality – and they are already seeing results.
The company has developed a 3D printer that assembles a pizza layer by layer, baking and heating it as it goes along, for a meal that is ready in minutes. While the machine prototype needs further development before it is tested in space, it has the potential to greatly improve astronauts’ meals, as well as to deliver 3D printed foods to us here on Earth.
The space veg patch
NASA’s other food technology project involves fresh ingredients – so fresh that they are harvested aboard the spacecraft.
The agency has asked university students to come up with solutions for growing edible plants in space, and a team from the University of Colorado Boulder has proposed a promising plan for robotic gardening.
Their project, titled Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces, places plants in small hydroponic growth chambers, called SmartPots, which use computers and sensors to keep track of each plant’s development. These SmartPots communicate the conditions of their plants to a remotely operated gardening rover (ROGR), which moves around the cabin responding to the system’s commands for water or other needs.
The ROGR robots can also harvest the fruit and vegetables. If an astronaut wants to make a salad, for instance, the growing system determines the plant with the best, ripest vegetables and tells the robot to collect them.
Solutions for Earth and Mars
Beyond growing food for long space journeys, the robotic gardening project could offer insight into how we would grow food for a colony on other planets, such as Mars, since the hydroponic chambers would allow plants to flourish in treacherous environments.
Astronauts need to eat nutrient-filled meals to sustain their energy and brainpower on arduous missions. If such a meal also delivers the flavours and textures of home comforts such as cooked-to-order pizza or a perfectly fresh salad, it will no doubt also boost their morale and emotional well-being on long space missions.
It seems that NASA’s space food research is making that happen with methods that have exciting implications for everyone back on Earth, too – whether we are 3D printing our breakfast or planning a visit to a colony on Mars.
Images courtesy of NASA.