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NASA is spicing up the astronauts’ diet with the production of food from deep space

In the 2015 sci-fi film “The Martian,” Matt Damon stars as an astronaut who survives on a diet of potatoes grown in human feces while leaving the Red Planet. New York-based company that produces carbon-negative jet fuel is taking its interplanetary cuisine in a completely different direction. His innovation placed him in the finals of a NASA-sponsored competition to support the development of next-generation technologies to meet the nutritional needs of astronauts.

Closely held Air Company of Brooklyn is pioneering a way to recycle carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts in flight to grow yeast-based nutrients for protein shakes designed to feed crews on long-duration deep space missions.

company co-founder and chief technology officer Stafford Sheehan says “It’s definitely more nutritious than Tang”, referring to the powdered drink popularized by John Glenn in 1962 when he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Sheehan, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry from Yale University, said he originally developed his carbon conversion technology as a means of producing high-purity alcohols for jet fuel, perfume and vodka.

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Deep Space Food Challenge

The NASA-sponsored Deep Space Food Challenge prompted Sheehan to adapt his invention as a way to produce edible protein, carbohydrates and fat from the same system.

The resulting single-cell protein drink entered into the NASA competition has the consistency of a whey protein shake, Sheehan said. Sheehan compared its taste to that of seitan, a tofu-like food made from wheat gluten that originated in East Asian cuisine and was adopted by vegetarians as a meat substitute.

“And you get that sweet, almost malty flavor,” Sheehan said in an interview.

In addition to protein drinks, the same process can be used to create more carbohydrate substitutes for bread, pasta, and tortillas. In the interests of culinary diversity, Sheehan said he sees other sustainably produced foods complementing his smoothies on missions.

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AIRMADE’s patented technology was one of eight winners NASA announced this month in the second phase of its food competition, along with a $750,000 prize. The last round of the competition is approaching.

Other winners included: a bioregeneration system from a Florida lab to grow fresh vegetables, mushrooms and even insect larvae to be used as micronutrients; an artificial photosynthesis process developed in California to create plant- and mushroom-based ingredients; and gas fermentation technology from Finland to produce single-cell proteins.

Prize money of up to $1.5 million will be distributed among the final winners of the competition

While few, if any, earn a place in the Michelin guide for quality food, they represent a big leap forward from Tango and the freeze-dried snacks astronauts consumed in the early days of space travel.

The new food-growing schemes are also more attractive and promise to be far more nutritious than the fictional potatoes fertilized by Matt Damon’s feces in “The Martian.”

Advances in food production in space also have direct applications for feeding Earth’s ever-growing population at a time when climate change is making food scarcer and harder to produce, Fritsche said.

“Controlled environment agriculture, the first modules we deploy on the moon, will have some similarity to the vertical farms we’ll have here on Earth,” Fritsche said.

Sheehan’s system begins by taking carbon dioxide gas purified from the air breathed by the astronauts and mixing it with hydrogen gas extracted from water by electrolysis. The resulting mixture of alcohol and water is then put into a small amount of yeast to grow a renewable supply of single-cell proteins and other nutrients.

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