The Locavore Astronaut: Developing Food in Space

Back in April, I wrote about NASA’s $125,000 grant to develop a 3-D food printer that dishes out food-as-we-know-it substitutes for long-term space missions and—perhaps—the first permanent residents of Mars. If you think this makes me sound like I’m from Mars, read it on their website.

The launch of Mars One is predicted by 2025, although the movie Gravity might do for space travel’s popularity what Titanic’s blockbuster year did for cruises.

The race to inhabit space is on, and if you think it’s going to be tough to feed 9 billion people in 2050 here on fertile earth, imagine feeding a colonized planet with no liquid water. Last month, a private corporation delivered cargo, including almost a ton of food, to the International Space Station. The company will charge nearly $2 billion through 2016 for such deliveries. Space is precious in space, and feeding people on Mars would require heaving every necessary morsel of food off earth and hurling it 35 million miles to a human space traveler’s mouth.

These enormous expenditures beg the same locavore question we ask on earth: What if we invested that money into growing food locally instead of shipping it? Current research might begin a new chapter in the future of food, even for those who remain Earthlings.

Today’s space travelers are with the same people, looking at the same scenery, with the same things to eat for long periods of time. They get bored with the same food over and over, which is why NASA invested in 3-D printers, which provide variety.

Fortunately, its research isn’t limited to faux food—NASA is looking into ways to offer astronauts farm-to-table fresh, real food. Call them locavore astronauts. The Veg-01 experiment launched on board the ISS this year, growing lettuce started from seed in specially created individual planting-pillow units. Astronauts harvested the first leaves in June for deep freezing. Lettuce samples will be analyzed when the next cargo flight returns to earth some time in September, at which time we will know if the lettuce is fit for consumption or if something funky and toxic happens during space farming.

Photo of a veggie farm in space.

Researchers at the Kennedy Space Center shadow the activation and procedures being performed on Veggie on the International Space Station. Photograph by NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Meanwhile back on earth, The Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility in Ontario is testing different light wavelengths to see which light will grow the best food, most efficiently, in space. It’s a necessary experiment if people will inhabit other planets with limited access to sunlight for long periods of time.

This research and NASA’s Advanced Life Support (ALS) research (“life support consumables” is governmentese for food and water) are not as esoteric as they sound. Here on our home planet, practical applications could go far beyond NASA’s stated mission of enabling “human space missions beyond low Earth orbit.” More efficient farming, water management, and waste disposal methods are hot agriculture issues. Even simply finding efficient lighting for indoor faming would improve innovative alternative growing methods currently in development, like urban farming in abandoned buildings.

The next time someone asks for your desert-island foods (mine are peaches, pizza, and a really good salad), remember that your children might someday actually face this question and have only a few foods in space, as opposed to the current staggering variety we enjoy today. But with some time, money, and research, the universe could open up.  

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.