AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sets its sights on longer duration trips into space, NASA officials have turned their attention to how best advance food technology to provide safe, nutritious energy sources for astronauts. One team here in Austin thinks it might have the solution.
Austin-based Team Bistromathic is one of 18 teams to win Phase 1 of NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge, a competition centered around creating “game-changing food technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious, and palatable food” for future space explorations. Phase 2 of competition begins this week, with winners projected to be announced in March 2023.
Ralph Fritsche serves as NASA’s spacecraft production project manager at the Kennedy Space Center. He said this competition’s key focus is on finding new food production technologies or capabilities that can withstand the environmental element changes of space, while also having the durability to withstand longer trips.
“How do you keep your food products safe for the crew to consume, especially important when you’re on long duration exploration missions and you have limited access to advanced medical procedures? Then it’s how do you keep your systems running, and how do you keep them clean? And how do you keep them reliable?” he said. “When you’re talking about bringing a system to deep space, you have to account for reliability.”
Fritsche added this competition is an opportunity for NASA to collaborate with leading scientists and engineers with a vested interest in space exploration, who can help pave the way for what this next chapter looks like.
“NASA has got a limited budget, limited amount of folks involved, and the ability to handle all the challenges on our plate, it’s tough,” he said. “So having people who are interested in working in space, knowing that there was a potential for some application to NASA, as well as the ability to make a fundamental — to have a fundamental impact on terrestrial food production is a big thing.”
Jakub Krejcik works as one of the leads for Team Bistromathic. While Phase 1 was centered around creating a prototype solution for food manufacturing in space, he said Phase 2 will essentially be a kitchen test where the team demonstrates the technology for a panel of judges.
So, how exactly does Team Bistromathic plan to manufacture food in space?
It all starts with various powders that are nutritionally complete food — foods that provide the recommended amounts of carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins and minerals and can be used as a singular source of nutrition. The team then applies food extrusion technology to these protein structures, using pressure and heat to release moisture in these powders, creating a texture that mirrors food here on earth.
For Krejcik, these nutritionally complete products are well within his wheelhouse; for more than seven years, he’s been manufacturing Mana, a science-driven food product designed to provide well-balanced nutritional elements.
It’s a somewhat similar process used in 3D printing technology, Krejcik said, where extrusion is used on plastics to manufacture a specific design.
“You can think of it as 3D printing, but it’s kind of different,” he said. “3D printing is also using extrusion, in terms of preparing the plastic to preheater, and then the heat basically melting the plastic to certain desired layers. But what we do is, thanks to this process, we are bringing the texture into the powder as the powder is basically the most convenient way to store food.”
With an emphasis on longer missions on NASA’s horizons, Krejcik said storage is a key focus of his team’s manufacturing efforts. He said food technology often comprises 2% of space cargo, at around 100 cubic meters in storage space; for Team Bistromathic’s proposal, that storage amount has been whittled down to two cubic meters.
“We’re really looking forward to making the mission happen, and we see that food is really critical — it’s a really critical element for the entire mission,” he said.
With most of the food supplies used on the International Space Station either freeze-dried or thermal-stabilized, Fritsche said while the food can be flavorful, the aroma and texture components are often elements that go by the wayside. With this competition, he said he’s intrigued by the freshness and textures competitors can bring to the table in Phase 2.
That, in his opinion, is what helps constitute good space food.
“We want to provide aromas and textures, as well as nutrition,” Fritsche said. “Ultimately, [food] serves two purposes: There has to be a psychosocial benefit from consuming that food, so it has to be enjoyable. It has to be something the crew wants to eat, or they won’t eat it. And it has to provide nutrition. So if it can check those boxes, it’s a good food.”