Printed Space Food: All the Calories, But Still Missing Something

By Kate Greene | May 24, 2013 12:25 pm

This is the seventh in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

A 3-D printer builds turkey paste into blocks. Credit: Cornell Creative Machines Lab

The other day I had to figure out what to make for dinner. On this mission, we have plenty of raw ingredients — pastas, tofu, dehydrated beef, freeze-dried vegetables, and even complete meals — so I puzzled over my options for some time. My turn to “cook” fell on a day that we were required, by the HI-SEAS food study, to use just-add-water-and-heat foods only. In the end, I went with a dehydrated meal of sweet and sour pork with rice. On the side, I added rehydrated green beans, couscous and some pouches of instant paneer makhani in case the sweet and sour pork turned out to be a dud. From concept to sit-down dinner for six, the whole process took about 35 minutes.

Not bad. But to be honest, on that day, I’d rather have spent the time doing something else. It would have been awfully nice to simply turn to a Star Trek-like replicator and pull out plates of perfectly layered lasagna. And I know I’m not alone in thinking this. That’s why recent news that NASA awarded a $125,000 grant to a company developing a 3-D food printer for future space missions got so much attention. After all, it promises to reduce time in the kitchen with a sci-fi flourish. But should printed food be the future of sustenance on remote space outposts? Based on my experiences living and eating on this simulated Mars mission, I’m not so sure.

I’ll explain my hesitation, but before I do, some background on the food-printing project. According to NASA, an Austin, Texas, company called Systems and Materials Research Consultancy will use the money to “conduct a study for the development of a 3-D printed food system for long-duration space missions.” In other words it’s a very early concept project.

Even so, the basic idea is intriguing: a 3-D printer can put down layers of shelf-stable macronutrients — unflavored proteins, starches and fats — to create a variety of shapely foodstuffs. Micronutrients like magnesium, calcium, and iron, and flavors like “beef” and “horseradish” can also be added.

Such a food printer could actually solve a number of major challenges that would come with feeding astronauts on Mars. First, today’s astronaut food doesn’t have the five-year shelf life needed for such a long mission. Second, it’s made with processing technology that degrades micronutrients. Third, astronauts right now don’t have a lot of options when it comes to their meals, so they tend to get bored and eat less over time, which is bad for their health.

With a 3-D printer, both macro- and micronutrients could be stored in airtight containers and pumped directly into printing systems, taking care of the shelf-life problem. And a printer could obviously inject nutrients into foodstuffs as well as create a variety of texture and flavor combinations, so there could always be something interesting to eat.

The question of satisfaction

As proposed, the food-printing project addresses some of the same challenges the HI-SEAS food study is investigating. Take menu fatigue. We’re testing crew food preferences for pre-prepared meals (sweet and sour pork with rice from a can) vs. meals creatively prepared with shelf-stable ingredients (sushi, pizza, etc.). Then there is shelf life. Most of our foods are dehydrated or freeze-dried, which confers an extremely long shelf life. Our powdered eggs, for instance, are good for seven years.

But what the food-printing project doesn’t address, and what the HI-SEAS project is intimately concerned with, is the effect of various types of food on crew mood, health, and ultimately, productivity. So far in our mission, there’s a trade-off in pre-prepared meals and creatively prepared meals. While the data aren’t yet in, I can say that in general, although pre-prepared meals don’t take long to pull together, they are less satisfying to eat. Creative meals take longer to prepare but are often delicious and tend to lift our moods and foster a communal spirit to a surprising degree.

And even though I might grumble about the time spent picking out foods and preparing the meal, I almost always feel satisfied when the crew sits down to eat it. I know I’ve contributed something important to the group. And sometimes the food even tastes good. The sweet and sour pork, for instance, wasn’t as bad as we had feared.

Automation and efficiency in food preparation have their place, of course. Energy, water and time will always need to be considered when designing a food system for astronauts. But it’d be a shame if interplanetary explorers were completely cut out of the culinary loop. A connection to food is a connection to Earth and to the rest of humanity. When you’re tens of millions of miles from your planet of origin, separated by the void, home-cooked meals might just become more important than ever.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars
  • Amy Henson

    my n℮ighbℴr’s ℮x-wif℮ mak℮s $64 hℴurly ℴn th℮ cℴmput℮r. Sh℮ has b℮℮n withℴut a jℴb fℴr 9 mℴnths but last mℴnth h℮r pay was $17315 just wℴrking ℴn th℮ cℴmput℮r fℴr a f℮w hℴurs. R℮ad mℴr℮ ℴn this w℮b sit℮……. Fℴx85.ℂℴm

  • David Despain

    hmm… I suspect that since the inventions of microwaves, fast food restaurants, and prepackaged foods, you could argue that there are plenty even on Earth who are disconnected from their food and planet

  • jchardy929

    The implication of 3D printer
    technology into the space habitat environment is exceedingly important. Just as
    important is the realization that “meals” are an art-form at root, and touch on
    our humanity at a fundamental level. Furthermore, if 3D printers can be made to “print” fundamental and complex carbohydrate, protein and fatty acid sequences
    in combination such that actual palatable “food stuffs” can be concocted, can progressive application to much larger objects (including living subjects) be
    far behind? In short, could 3D technology not have an
    impact on the concept-of teleportation? For example: might a digital coded constructing an entire being not be sent to a very distant receiver (and appropriately constructed “printer”) allowing a duplicate “being” to be reconstructed at the other end – say on a known habitable planet in a distant star system? All we have to do is get the “organic printer” to the subject planet (along with the raw materials) and presto: we would have the means of light-speed travel. Of course, baring an intelligence at the other end to construct the “printer”, acquiring the initial
    printer at the object planet would require standard sublight speed and might

    take centuries, but once there, only transmission to the receiving printer
    would be necessary and this would occur at light speed.

    Just a thought.

    J.S. HARDY , M.D

  • Amy Shelburn

    Taking processed foods to a whole new level… Can we please keep this for astronauts, exclusively? I’d like to not allow my thoughts to wander to far with what this technology could allow…

  • Alan

    A wide variety of great tasting foods is certainly critical for a long
    space mission, maybe the most important. Repetition and monotony, trapped inside a little tin can without any sunlight or plants around you can be a real downer. Great food is extremely important to maintain morale. That’s why submarine chefs are the best in the world. They have to be. Makes sense to have a machine to take the place of a chef to provide that variety. Astronauts today couldn’t function without lots of spices and condiments to liven up and customize the standard food options. The same holds for soldiers eating MREs. Printing an endless variety of foods takes it a step forward. My gut feeling is though that growing fresh produce using hydroponics is ultimately going to be the best solution, as nurturing the plants by all the crew will provide the exposure to nature we need, filter the air, as well as provide the taste you can never replicate.

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About Kate Greene

Kate Greene is a San Francisco-based science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in Discover magazine, The Economist, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. She is presently a crewmember of HI-SEAS (Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a 120-day simulated Mars mission, during which she will live on the rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa inside a two-story dome, eating astronaut food. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. Gastronaut’s not bad either. Her Internet home is kategreene.net.

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