Could you make food from an astronaut's breath? NASA's Deep Space Food Challenge finalists to be announced today

"It's making food out of air." Feeding astronauts in the future could be as easy as taking a long deep breath.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of an astronaut on the Moon.
An artist's impression of an astronaut on the Moon.

peepo / iStock 

We have a new addition to the list of weirdly fascinating proposals for harvesting and reusing valuable resources in space — see also, astronaut blood and urine as a building material.

In 2021, NASA announced the Deep Space Food Challenge whereby companies and research organizations would submit innovative proposals for harvesting food in space. The finalists are due to be announced today.

One of the candidates, New York-based Air Company designed a system that uses the carbon dioxide expelled by astronauts in a habitat to produce alcohol, which can then be used to grow food, a report from MIT Technology Review explains.

NASA deep space food challenge

Since the advent of human spaceflight, astronauts have largely relied on pre-packaged food for crewed space missions. Now that NASA is looking to establish a permanent presence on the Moon with it upcoming Artemis missions, and eventually also send humans to Mars, it has turned to the private sector for help.

For the Deep Space Food Challenge, NASA asked companies to propose novel methods for growing food in space. To be precise, they had to design systems that could operate for three years, feeding a crew of four in space. The systems were required to create a variety of nutritious foods.

Air Company, one of eight US-based finalists for NASA's challenge adapted its existing technology for developing alcohols from CO2 for plane fuel and perfume.

Making food out of astronaut air

The company's method is deceptively simple, meaning it is well suited to space missions. "It's making food out of air," Stafford Sheehan, co-founder and CTO of Air Company told MIT Technology Review in an interview. "It sounds like magic, but when you see it actually operating, it's much more simple. We're taking CO2, combining it with water and electricity, and making proteins."

The alcohol extracted by Air Company's method is fed to yeast, which then produces "something that’s edible," Sheehan continued. For the NASA competition, the company created a protein shake using its method. "It actually tastes pretty good," he said. The system would constantly ferment the yeast, meaning that whenever an astronaut was hungry and wanted a "space protein shake", they could "make one from this yeast that's growing."

Another company, Florida-based Interstellar Lab, is developing small toaster-sized capsules with self-contained ecosystems. These could be used to cultivate vegetables and even small insects. It is worth noting, though, that all of the contestants for NASA's challenge are still being assessed as part of the selection process.

Contestants who make it to the final phase will be announced today, May 19, while NASA will announce the overall winner of the challenge in April next year.