NASA offers $500,000 for ideas on growing food in space

NASA has announced that it's offering a prize of $500,000 for good ideas for feeding astronauts on long-term space missions. NASA wants to figure out how to provide astronauts on long-term missions something other than dried and packaged foods from Earth. The deadline for ideas that could potentially collect the $500,000 prize is July 30; the project is known as the Deep Space Food Challenge.

After July 30, NASA will choose a winning idea. The Canadian Space Agency has a similar challenge running with phased awards that total $500,000, with the grand prize awarded in 2024. NASA's lead scientist for advanced food technology is Grace Douglas, who works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Douglas says that while NASA has knowledge and capability in that area, it understands technologies and ideas exist outside the agency.

Astronauts aboard the ISS face a similar problem with food variety. Douglas previously outlined the problem in a paper written with colleagues concerning food boredom with ISS astronauts. Astronauts report that the resupply vehicles arrive several times per year to bring some fresh fruit and vegetables, and other semi-shelf-stable specialty items provide profound psychological benefits.

The same paper also outlines other ways NASA has tried to produce food and space with limited cultivation of greens and radishes. Other experiments involve the growth of yeast in orbit that creates nutrients that could supplement astronaut diets. A caveat is that so far, none of the experiments have provided a significant volume of food.

During the Apollo era, lunar capsules had hot water to allow the astronauts to hydrate meals. However, Douglas has said that NASA may not be able to provide hot water for deep space missions longer than ten days. Food is a dilemma that has to be solved before any long-term habitation of Mars by humans because a round-trip by a resupply vessel would require about 250 days making resupply nearly impossible.