In a quest to revolutionize food technologies for long-term space missions, the NASA-sponsored Deep Space Food Challenge has reached its final stage, NPR reported on Monday.
Among the innovative ideas competing for up to $1.5 million in prize money, one contestant stands out with a remarkable process that could help sustain astronauts on their journey to Mars: Stafford Sheehan, co-founder of Air Company.
Sheehan's groundbreaking approach utilizes a unique combination of ingredients to create space-yeast - a versatile and protein-rich food source for astronauts.
"Astronaut breath, water, yeast starter, electricity, a rolling pin and we can make it happen," Sheehan told NPR.
By combining air, water and yeast starter in Sheehan's machine, a protein shake-like yeast is produced, which can be dried and rolled into pasta or tortillas, hence the need for a rolling pin.
What is the underlying science?
The underlying science behind Sheehan's invention dates back to 2017 when he developed a process that converts carbon dioxide into alcohol. This alcohol can then be transformed into various useful products, including vodka, perfume and yeast.
Sheehan's company has now advanced to the final stage of the Deep Space Food Challenge, aiming to create novel and game-changing food technologies that require minimal resources, produce little waste and offer safe, nutritious and flavorful options.
The primary goal of these edible innovations is twofold. Firstly, they aim to make long-duration space exploration, including missions to Mars and beyond, more feasible by addressing the challenge of limited food resources during such journeys.
Secondly, these advancements have the potential to provide sustainable food solutions here on Earth, offering avenues to combat hunger and reduce environmental impact.
Collaborating with the Canadian Space Agency, the Deep Space Food Challenge has brought together eight teams for the final round. Among the other finalists are Interstellar Lab, based in Florida, which has developed a bio-regenerative system to grow fresh vegetables, mushrooms, and insects, and SATED, based in Colorado, which has designed a cooking appliance that prepares meals using ingredients with extended shelf lives.
What was the process behind it?
Explaining the process behind his invention, Sheehan drew parallels with the way plants utilize carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water, which enables them to produce sugar and oxygen.
Air Company mimics this process by utilizing astronauts' exhaled carbon dioxide to produce alcohol, which is then consumed by the yeast starter, resulting in a proliferation of yeast. This efficient reproduction of yeast enables the creation of edible nutritional yeast, which can be transformed into various food products.
With nutritional yeast, astronauts can enjoy a range of dishes such as pasta, tortillas, and seitan—a protein source popular among vegans. Sheehan described the flavor of the nutritional yeast as similar to wheat gluten but with a slightly sweeter taste.
The significance of developing space food extends beyond space exploration, particularly in the context of a potential mission to Mars. The current challenge lies in transporting a sufficient amount of food for the round trip, which could take up to seven months.
The weight of packing over a year's worth of food, including additional snacks, would be prohibitively heavy for a rocket launch. Thus, the Deep Space Food Challenge finalists aim to address this critical issue and make a mission to Mars more viable.
Space food innovations can address Earth's challenges
In addition to the benefits for space exploration, innovations in space food hold tremendous promise for addressing Earth's challenges, including climate change. While the development of space food currently requires significant investment, Sheehan believes this can change in the future.
Drawing a comparison to solar energy, which evolved from costly to affordable and widely accessible, Sheehan envisions a similar trajectory for Air Company's products.
Apart from producing yeast from carbon dioxide, the company can also generate sustainable aviation fuel. Sheehan emphasizes the potential to combat climate change by replacing the reliance on fossil fuels with carbon dioxide-based fuel production.
Achieving energy independence is another aspect Sheehan hopes to address through his products. By scaling up operations to match the fossil fuel industry, Air Company aims to produce its goods at competitive prices, thereby reducing dependence on traditional energy sources.
Collaborating with NASA, Air Company's work in the realm of space food holds the promise of transforming not only the way astronauts sustain themselves in space but also the way people on Earth combat hunger, reduce environmental impact, and strive for energy independence.