Deep space exploration

Meet the Austin team that designs foods for NASA deep space exploration

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration aims for longer-duration space travel, NASA officials have turned their attention to how best to advance food technology to provide sources of energy. safe and nutritious energy to astronauts. A team here in Austin thinks they might have the solution.

Austin-based Team Bistromathic is one of 18 teams to win Phase 1 of NASA’s Deep Space Food Challengea competition centered on creation “breakthrough food technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious and tasty food” for future space exploration. Phase 2 of the competition begins this week, with winners expected to be announced in March 2023.

Ralph Fritsche is NASA’s Spacecraft Production Project Manager at Kennedy Space Center. He said the main goal of this competition is to find new technologies or food production capabilities that can withstand changes in the environmental elements of space, while having the durability to withstand longer journeys.

“How do you ensure the safety of your food items for the crew, which is especially important when you are on long duration exploration missions and have limited access to advanced medical procedures? Second, how do you keep your systems running and how do you keep them clean? And how do you keep them reliable? ” he said. “When you’re talking about taking a system into deep space, you have to consider reliability.”

Fritsche added that this competition is an opportunity for NASA to collaborate with leading scientists and engineers with a vested interest in space exploration who can help pave the way for what that next chapter will look like.

“NASA has a limited budget, a limited number of people involved, and the ability to handle all the challenges on our plate, it’s tough,” he said. “So having people who are interested in working in space, knowing that there was potential for an application at NASA, as well as the ability to do a fundamental — to have a fundamental impact on food production earthly is a great thing.”

Jakub Krejcik is one of the leaders of the Bistromathic team. While Phase 1 focused on creating a prototype solution for making food in space, he said Phase 2 would essentially be a kitchen test where the team would demonstrate the technology to a panel of judges.

So how exactly does the Bistromathic team plan to make food in space?

It all starts with various powders that are nutritionally complete foods – foods that provide recommended amounts of carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals and can be used as a sole source of nutrition. The team then applies food extrusion technology to these protein structures, using pressure and heat to release moisture from these powders, creating a texture that mirrors food here on earth.

For Krejcik, these nutritionally complete products are right in his wheelhouse; for more than seven years, he has been manufacturing manaa science-based food product designed to provide well-balanced nutritional elements.

It’s a somewhat similar process used in 3D printing technology, Krejcik said, where extrusion is used on plastics to make a specific design.

“You can think of it as a 3D print, but it’s a little different,” he said. “3D printing also uses extrusion, in terms of preparing the plastic for preheating and then the heat melts the plastic into certain desired layers. But what we do is through this process we bring texture in powder because powder is basically the most convenient way to preserve food.

Focusing on longer missions on NASA’s horizon, Krejcik said storage is a key part of his team’s manufacturing efforts. He said food technology often includes 2% of space cargo, about 100 cubic meters of storage space; for Team Bistromathic’s proposal, this amount of storage was reduced to two cubic meters.

“We’re really looking forward to doing the mission, and we see that food is really critical – it’s a really critical element for the whole mission,” he said.

Since most food used on the International Space Station is freeze-dried or heat-stabilized, Fritsche said, while food can be tasty, flavor and texture components are often things that pass by the wayside. With this competition, he said he was intrigued by the freshness and textures that competitors can bring to the Phase 2 table.

This, in his opinion, is what contributes to good space food.

“We want to provide flavor and texture, as well as nutrition,” Fritsche said. “Ultimately, [food] has two purposes: there must be a psychosocial benefit to consuming this food, so it must be enjoyable. It has to be something the crew wants to eat or they won’t eat it. And it must provide nutrition. So if it can tick those boxes, it’s a good food.