The race to develop space food for Mars is on

Birthday cakes took a different form aboard the International Space Station (ISS) under Chris Hadfield’s command. Using alternating layers of peanut butter, honey, and the maple syrup he had brought with him from Canada, the astronauts stacked tortillas 25 high. Exceptionally versatile in space, tortillas don’t crumble like bread or cake; since they’re heat-treated and packaged in an oxygen-free environment, they can last for 18 months.

In an effort to encourage the creation of food technologies or systems for long-duration space missions, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has partnered with NASA on the Deep Space Food Challenge, which Hadfield is co-chairing with Dr. Thomas Graham, a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences with 25 years of experience in space-related research.

The international competition includes $300,000 for up to 15 winning Canadian teams. This fall, as many as 10 semi-finalists will test their prototypes; and in fall 2022, up to four finalists will build a full system demonstration. Underscoring the complexity of the task, the jury is diverse: Lynn Blackwood, a food security policy analyst with the Nunatsiavut Government, Lawrence Goodridge, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph, and chef Lynn Crawford, are among the 11 tasked with arriving at a shortlist.

In coming up with future food technologies for space, innovators must consider questions terrestrial producers take for granted, says Hadfield: How long are a day and night? What air pressure is it? Will there be soil, and if so, what type? Are there insects or not? How will seeds be germinated? Is there gravity, and if so, how much and how will it affect plant life?

Producing food in space may be wrapped up in a new set of parameters, but Hadfield looks at it historically. Just as when Indigenous peoples in present-day southern Mexico domesticated corn roughly 9,000 years ago, “the solutions are technical, they are scientific. They’re genetic and biological.”

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