As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I’ve always had a fascination with space food.
Whether it was the idea of astronauts drinking Tang or reading stories about how the Space Shuttle crews would prepare their meals and then try to eat in the microgravity environment of space, I couldn’t get enough info about how human space travelers fed themselves.
In a way, it was the very idea that these rigorously trained astronauts flying billion dollar equipment hundreds of miles above the earth’s surface still had to find time to prepare a meal that made the idea of space travel that much more relatable to a kid like me.
And so now, for someone who has always been fascinated with the idea of feeding people hundreds or millions of miles away from earth, I have to say this past year has been an exciting one. That’s because every few weeks or so a new story pops up about some new research effort to develop ways to feed people in zero gravity.
In short, as we leave one decade and enter a new one, it seems space food has rocketed back into prominence.
Here’s a sample of some of the space food news from 2019:
In October, Aleph Farms grew meat cells in space. For the first time ever, meat cells were produced in zero gravity as this Israeli startup made “great steaks” using a 3D bioprinter in the Russian section of the International Space Station.
In November, a Cygnus rocket launched carrying samples of red wine. A French startup called Space Cargo Unlimited is sending the vino into orbit with the intention of studying how space radiation and being in a state of constant free-fall impacts biological aging processes.
Accompanying the wine on this same rocket trip into space was an oven designed for actually cooking food in orbit. Astronauts usually eat pre-cooked food heated with water, but if this oven works they will actually be able to cook food in space. In late December, a space crew aboard the International Space Station baked sugar cookies using the space oven and will bring them back to earth to study them.
Just last week, we heard that SpaceX will be flying coffee and hemp cultures into space this year to see how what the impact zero gravity has on the plants. Colorado-based agricultural company Front Range Biosciences is partnering with SpaceCells USA Inc. and BioServe Space Technologies to put 480 samples aboard a March 2020 cargo flight from Elon Musk’s space startup.
Elon’s brother Kimball also is thinking about feeding people in space with his own startup Square Roots, developing self-contained hydroponic farm modules that he says could one day be used on Mars.
Earlier this year we heard about Space Food-X, a Japanese consortium of 30 or so companies, researchers and governmental organizations looking to develop ways to better feed people in space. Led by Japanese space agency JAXA, venture capital firm RealTech Fund and consulting firm SigmaXYZ, the group has a five-phase plan stretching through 2040 to develop sustainable food systems.
With the glut of space food news over the past year or so, it got me to wondering why? Why is there a rapidly growing interest in feeding people in space?
One obvious reason is the renewed interest in space travel in the US and abroad. With Space-X and Blue Origin inching us closer to more affordable space travel and Russia, China and the European Union investing heavily in space programs, it just makes sense that developing food systems for space would be a part of that.
I also think it’s because we’ve moving closer to a reality of long-term space travel and permanent habitation. Whether it’s the actual habitation of Mars or some other place in the galaxy, simply packing up freeze dried food won’t cut it. If there are people on a space station or a settlement on Mars, we need to develop ways to feed them over long time periods in space, which means actually growing food in space.
Finally, if we learned anything from the first space race between the US and the Soviet Union, it’s that the effort to feed people in orbit ends up paying dividends here on earth. Sure, you get fun foods like Tang and freeze dried ice cream, but there’s also big ideas like gas fermentation born out of space agency research decades ago that is being further developed today as a way to create more sustainable protein sources.
So as we enter a new decade, I have to say the space food nerd in me is getting pretty excited, not only because it seems we’re seeing real effort across the globe to develop sustainable food systems for space that could help would-be Mars colonizers feed themselves someday, but also because I’m excited to see how all this effort to develop food in the toughest of environments could be used to feed us non-astronauts here on Earth.