NASA Challenge Offers Prizes For Sprouting Astronaut Food Systems

Humans have unfortunately not yet evolved the ability to photosynthesize or recharge from an electricity source, which is why astronauts well into the future of spaceflight will need to have access to food sources. Developing ways to grow food in space is the focus of the new Deep Space Food Challenge that was just launched by NASA and Canada’s Space Agency (CSA).

With a total of twenty $25,000 USD prizes for US contestants and ten $30,000 CAD prizes for the Canucks in Phase 1 of the challenge, there’s some financial incentive as well. In Phase 2, the winning teams of the concept phase have to show off their kitchen skills, and in the final Phase 3 (deadline by Fall 2023) the full food growing system has to be demonstrated.

The possible systems here would likely involve some kind of hydroponics, aeroponics or even aquaponics, to save the weight of lugging kilograms of soil into space. None of this is truly new technology, but cramming it into a package that would be able to supply a crew of four with enough food during a three-year mission does seem fairly challenging.

The NASA rules are covered in their Phase 1 Rules PDF document. While international teams are also welcome to compete, they cannot receive any prizes beyond recognition, and Chinese citizens or companies with links to China are not to allowed to compete at all.

53 thoughts on “NASA Challenge Offers Prizes For Sprouting Astronaut Food Systems

    1. I do not understand anyway, why they would not be allowed to participate. They could not even get a prize “beyond recognition”. So potential Chinese participants could just contribute knowledge, but not gain it.
      Or did NASA fear, that Chinese would introduce very strange food? :-) Although I am sure, dog meat would not be an option even for Chinese astronauts

          1. That’s pretty cool. I never thought of that.
            ATP to ADP is about 30 kJ/mol, or 60 J/gram. So if you’re running 2000 kcal = 8,000 kJ/day, you’re processing 133 kg of ATP. Close enough to 180 lb, for a SWAG on an napkin. neat.

      1. Photosynthetic organisms do not invest energy into locomotion or any nervous system. So they can – and need to be – very low power.
        I would not like to be a plant, just standing there and waiting to be eaten.

      1. Some kind of nut butter oil slurry then, sloppy peanut butter on Mondays, sloppy almond butter on Tuesdays, sloppy sunflower seed butter on Wednesdays, sloppy pecan butter on Thursdays, sloppy roasted soybean butter on Fridays, sloppy hazelnut butter on Saturdays (Chocolate flavored every other week) and sloppy cashew nut butter on Sundays. Once a month you’re allowed to take a break and just chew TP instead :-D

  1. I think it was Clarke who proposed the most efficient way to provide calories for astronauts was for them to carry most of them internally. Pack on an extra 50 lbs of fat, and that’s enough calories for a whole trip to Mars. A few lightweight daily supplements and you’re good to go.

    Like Bowie said: Take your protein pills, and put your helmet on…

    1. Personally I’d like to think they’d go with something like coiled clear tubing around some lamps, then you let green algae grow in it, pump it around and catch it with a filter.
      Very space and energy efficient, plus, hardly any water is released, when food is extraxted, especially if the system pelletizes the filtered mass with a vacuum filter or ram. You’d basically have something akin to spinish purΓ©e.

      1. was thinking of something similar but not sure the sludge would pass the “palatable” criteria. maybe they could grow some of those fungi from Chernobyl to grow on cosmic rays? that would be extremely energy efficient

    2. Sweet – seems I’m qualified to fly to Mars! At least in one respect… still, taking the win :)

      Looks like it’s 3,500 calories per lb:

      So each lb should serve for 1 or 2 days energy for sedate to moderate earth bound activities:

      So if a space flight is to take 245 to 400 days (, and we’re optimistic that 1 lb of flab supplies 1.5 days of energy, then, rounding thing off a bit, that’s 150 to 250 lbs of excess weight to carry.

      Boo. Seems I’m not qualified after all. Where are the pies?

  2. It’s interesting that there is essentially zero dried food used on the ISS. Most of the food shipped up has all its water included. NASA did the calculation that, despite all the water on board being essentially 100% recycled, it is still more efficient to ship up the extra water in the food itself rather than provide dried food and extra water to reconstitute it. (The shuttle had the handy water exhaust from the fuel cells that would otherwise go to waste, so it went the dried-food route.)

    I’m sure issues around astronaut time to prep dried food and its palatability also played a role in the decision.

    So with all the extra mass of a food-growing setup, bigger power systems and thermal management, habitat volume etc., I wonder what the crossover point really is, where it makes more sense to build food systems rather than just ship all you need with you. Ship your water in the form of steaks and frozen vegetables.

    Ship it all with you and you’re guaranteed that crop failure won’t kill you. And you’ll probably get a much more varied diet too.

    Though fresh lettuce and tomatoes 6 months out might be nice, and tending the shrubbery would be a good crew activity, so a small “condiment” garden would be good.

      1. Might do the opposite. Plants growing in restricted light, don’t cross the compensation point where they’re binding more CO2 than they’re releasing. So, they’re using up the O2, so turn up the light. I’m gonna figure that missions are going away from the sun, so even if you think it’s a good idea to be flying a glasshouse, the light is getting weaker every day. So just use more artificial light… ummm, you’re running off solar panels and the light is getting weaker every day. Efficiency of conversion of light energy to biomass is 3-6%, optimistically, half of that is useable by a human metabolism. The total conversion efficiency is going to be very nasty. Either got to pack a lot of energy or leave the plants suck up what they can from minimum illumination for humans…. annnnd suck up twice the O2.

        1. I think when you want to go to Mars, there is still enough solar radiation. If necessary you could concentrate solar radiation with a mirror, to give the plants enough light. Beyond, if solar power is not enough, you have a big energy problem anyway. You probably have no option without nuclear power.

          1. Yes I think that needs to be part of the answer, solar concentrators. Though if a private company is thinking of putting a thorium reactor in a car that does a million miles before it needs refueling, then NASA ought to be able to get a thousand pound thorium package going that socks out a dozen kilowatts for 3 years.

    1. If you are actually going somewhere like Mars you still need to eat when you get there, and presumably on the way back, or for the rest of your lives there, so anything from a year to eighty… No way to ship enough for any significant number of people with current rocket tech even to the local planets. Perhaps for the one to two year round trip for a tiny group its feasible – as I expect for large portions of the mission calorific need will be lower, sitting around weightless, waiting to get there or back – but even still think about how much waste would be produced in two years, and how much even on a starvation diet a human needs – its a massive volume, and mass – both of which are big issues, no matter what foods you send.

      Also worth considering that crops in space is atmospheric and water processing too, how much extra canned air/ air processing reagents would you need if you can’t recycle it – that’s yet more mass you have to haul around. Its pretty quickly going to reach a tipping point where growing it up there is the only sane option.

      To me it seems the scales really tip harder towards grow your own as you add more people too. Its not out of the realms of possibility to cart 3 tonnes of food around, even send some on ahead separately for that small crew, but add a person you add a few extra kg of water (even with recycling as you add more people you will need a bigger tank to meet the demand) and around a ton of food (at something around a starvation diet) for two year mission to Mars, which probably adds nearer two ton to the mass you have to haul when you add in the extra volume of the spacecraft..

      1. It’s obvious that there is a tipping point, where supplying a large population in space indefinitely with food from earth is not cost-effective.

        It’s not at all obvious what that point is. Our largest current example, a 400-ton, 6-person ship in low earth orbit, has run 100 person-years of operation with all food supplies coming ready-to-eat from earth. About 4 person-years of food is on board at any given time.

        Nuclear submarines routinely run 40 person-years between resupply.

        The South Pole Station overwinters 25-50 person-years with no resupply. They do grow a little food, very inefficiently extracted from diesel fuel — it’s arguable it would be more mass-efficient to bring the food in instead of the diesel.

        So, at least at the 4-50 person-year level, we don’t bother trying to grow it in-situ, even when it’s hard and expensive to ship that food there.

        I’m sure at least the first few dozen people beyond low earth orbit, and maybe the first few dozen missions, will have all the necessary food supplies with them or prepositioned. The infrastructure and manpower needed to grow and process a useful quantity and variety of crops for food is enormous — it’s not going to happen on a 3-5 month transport ship, at least beyond the “experimental” or “condiments” level.

        1. I don’t disagree at all, where the tipping point is is hard to judge currently.
          Though the cost of resupply to the south pole/ or ISS is bugger all compared to going just a tiny bit further out as your south pole/ submarine examples don’t need to carry yet more fuel to carry the fuel that allows the carrying of the food – I think that the nature of rockets quickly puts the tipping point to doing some growing on board. Full self sufficiency is not needed for it to be worth it – as you have to recycle the air and water anyway growing plants you can eat as part of that so in place of some of the reagents and machinery to do so artificially doesn’t fall into the trap of adding yet more mass, so more mass of fuel, if anything it lets you make the supplies lighter as your onboard recycling has improved efficiencies.

          1. “emergency trip to the South Pole (from the U.S.) ”
            It’s Canadians in their Twin Otters who make those rescue trips, not from the US.
            Payload in those planes is only about 1.5 tons, but much less on those trips, because they have to carry their own return fuel too.

            So, roughly at least $1000/kg to the south pole. Similar to the marginal cost of a Falcon 9 lobbing a flock of Starlinks into orbit…

        2. The manpower aspect is kind of a bonus, they don’t wanna keep someone up on the ISS just to tend the greens, but once a planetary mission leaves orbit, there’s not a heck of a lot to keep our astronauts busy until orbital insertion around planet x, mars presumably.

      2. This was fairly closely studied back in1979 in the NASA publication Space Resources and Space Settlements. Assuming that an adult consumes 219 kilos of dry food per year and about 1500 kilos of drinking and sanitation water in the same time, recycling water becomes attractive from a mass point of view in less than a week even using technology from that era. The ISS reduces the need for recycling by reducing the use of hygiene water on the station(infrequent mist showers and laundry done on Earth) and bringing wet food from Earth.

        Similar calculations applied to the trade offs between launching stored food vs food regeneration equipment show a cross over time(in favor of regeneration) of between 3 and 14 years(although the larger number is a hypothetical maximum not tied to any technological boundaries) with an average of eight years. The main variable being the unknown efficiency( calories/kilo) of the regeneration equipment. The publication is available on line and is still the best work available on closed environmental/resource systems for long term space missions.

        It is worth noting that the SR&SS study was looking towards total replacement of dietary needs and this challenge is specifically supplemental and investigational, so crossover values are less limiting.

    2. They even ship great amounts of water to the ISS – as oxygen supply – it is 90% O per weight and easier to handle and store for longer time than LOX. You just need some electricity to get rid of the H2 – which is dumped.

        1. H2 is dumped, but in the form of methane, as the waste product from the CO2 scrubbers.
          Kilograms per day.
          They *could* use it for stationkeeping propellant (through a zirconium resistojet, for example), but don’t. Seems a lost opportunity.

  3. Two suggestions, build a hydroponic garden in a rotating cylinder with a grow light in the middle, about the size of a dryer (and using much of the same technology) and you get greens and O2. And second what about growing mushrooms? The crew has to poop and they don’t do much with the poop now, why not get some pizza toppings out of it?

  4. Antoine Lavoisier said “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”.
    So without supplying nutriments from earth, the only way to feed astronauts is to recycle their organic waste …
    Nasa would have better call it a “Recycle Poo Challenge”, but they will not call it like this, maybe one person there noticed that acronym is already copied ;)

  5. Have you ever met a person who has run an aero/aqua/hydroponics system without the need to intervene regularly? It is such a fragile tech and needs constant attention. They are better off just having a GM lichen growing on a “solid” substrate, then just dump the excess CO2 and air moisture into its well lit enclosure for it to process. Extra points for turning poop into the inert substrate for the process.

    1. Why “inert ” substrate. The poop contains substances very much needed as fertilizer. P, K, N and trace elements. Probably you want to sterilize it, to kill potentially harmful bacteria.

    1. Your actual space pig (Piiiiiigs iiiiiiin Spaaaaaace) might turn out to be little old

      In a Vermiponic system, processing waste into highly fertile forms that plants crave (unlike brawndo) Then you can cull the worm mass every so often and process it into wormburger, which when made into hamburgers some say is quite tasty. Also many methods have appeared for making synthetic bacon from other meats, so that may be possibility.

  6. “Humans have unfortunately not yet evolved the ability to photosynthesize or recharge from an electricity source”

    Often I see food projects or the activities of self declared “foodies” and I think if we could just develop a food that is perfectly nutritious and leave it at that. We would all be so much healthier and if that energy that goes into inventing new ways to prepare food went into inventing everything else we would probably have colonized the solar system by now.

    Then I tried Soylent. Mmm, Yum (in the most sarcastic voice you can possibly imagine) And I imagine life with solutions like above, where we wouldn’t eat at all.

    Maybe the foodies are on to something after all. You’ve got to have some enjoyment in life!

    1. I think the Soylent guys fell victim to the same mistake as Segway – coming into a market with a high tech solution while failing to benchmark traditional, low tech options because they failed to realize the low tech options were their competition. With Segway, they missed bicycles. With Soylent, they’d benchmarked it against ramen and fast food, but it seems they missed rice and beans, which are not only cheaper and something you can more or less live on, but actually taste like something.

      1. Well, in the Charlton Heston version of the movie, the Earth’s ecosystem had collapsed (“except for a few well guarded farms” or something like that) necessitating the need for synth-food.

  7. My entry is three peat moss spheres – each with six equally spaced seedlings. One will be populated with zucchini, one with tomatoes, and one with peppermint. I will need to do some testing to ensure the zucchini vines are safe to let out in the confined quarters of a spaceship, however.

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