Guest blog - Another step for mankind? 3D food printers: Do they have an application for space travel?
PhD student Imogen Allen from the University of Reading and BNF blog on Space Nutrition
The 20th of July 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. To mark this historic occasion and look at what may be the next major space feat – humans landing on Mars – from a nutrition perspective, we have asked PhD student Imogen Allen from the University of Reading to write a blog with us on her PhD – the applicability of 3D food printing for space travel.
In the 2030s, NASA plans to send a crew to Mars, the closest planet with potential for colonisation. These astronauts will fly for longer than anyone has ever before, and the mission could take about 3 years. Such incredibly long-duration space missions will be only be possible if safe, nutritious and acceptable foods with sufficient shelf life are available.
When it comes to a Mars mission things aren’t straightforward!
The current pre-packaged food systems (usually freeze dried or thermo-stabilised) used for space travel would not be adequate for a long-duration mission to Mars for a number of reasons including menu fatigue, quality degradation, nutritional concerns and the large mass of food needed to sustain a crew for 3 years. There can be no trips to resupply foods!
At the moment foods for astronauts typically have shelf lives of 18 months. These do not meet the 5 year shelf life required for foods targeted for Mars missions. Importantly, key nutrients like vitamin B and C degrade over time and foods missing key nutrients, which increase susceptibility to micronutrient deficiencies, or foods that are unpalatable, will not be adequate for long-duration space exploration. Waste is another consideration; food packaging creates waste that cannot be merely left in space. Mass and volume storage on these missions is also an issue. And if you think supplements are the solution, these degrade as well, are not a substitute for the importance of nutritious and varied foods, and may be easily skipped.
The importance of variety
Imagine being stuck in a 20 m3 transit spacecraft or 1000 m3 of Martian habitat for almost 3 years and eating the same foods on rotation1. The importance of variety cannot be overstated in preventing menu fatigue which can lead to lower food intake, weight loss and poor nutrient intake, which can impact on astronaut health. Food variety and acceptability have unsurprisingly been linked to crew wellbeing and reduced stress in prolonged missions. Hence, alternative space food systems are being explored to support the crews on long-duration missions.
What other possibilities are there for Mars Missions?
Research into bioregenerative crop/plant systems to support long-duration habitat missions is ongoing and is expected in the future to impart less of a burden on critical mission resources than a pre-packaged, shelf-stable system. However, currently such systems take up space, require time to manage and provide limited variety. Moreover, without a viable backup, crop-failure would be disastrous so this is unlikely to be the solution for the first Mars missions2.
So what other technologies may be applicable to food systems in space? What systems could find the right balance between safety, nutrition and taste? 3D printing may help, using shelf-stable, space efficient cartridges of powders with different nutritional compositions3. Pastes made with water, bulk protein and carbohydrate powders would serve as the base for 3D-printed food. By combining vitamin and mineral mixtures, flavours, colours and oils to the pastes, the 3D-produced foods could be tailored to meet the personal nutritional needs and taste preferences of each astronaut. They would be able to create a diverse menu, with minimal waste.
The personalised nutrition aspect is of real interest. Spaceflight-associated health risks relate to microgravity and enhanced radiation exposure. These environmental factors exacerbate visual deterioration in astronauts with specific genetic polymorphisms. Such risks could be partially mitigated by optimising their vitamin B levels4. One way to do this would be supplementing the pre-packaged food system with a 3D food printer, used in combination with phenotypic biomarkers. Astronauts with a genetic predisposition to visual deterioration could be monitored for their vitamin B status and these data could be relayed to a 3D food printer, which could deliver calculated doses of nutrients. Whilst this is beyond the capacities of existing printers, this may not be far off and could be an exciting area of development.
There is also some concern with bioregenerative plant growth systems being able to provide sufficient high quality protein to meet requirements during missions5. Looking into the future, researchers may explore the possibilities of culturing animal muscle protein using 3D printing for lab-grown meat for long term space ﬂights.
Other possibilities for 3D printing
As well as on Mars, there is an interest in 3D food printing right here on Earth as this technology could enable food formulations for specific dietary needs. For example, with texture modified foods needed for people with dysphagia which is highly prevalent in care home populations. For patient safety, pureed foods need to be served at the correct textures and these can often look and taste unappealing leading to decreased intake and an increased risk of malnutrition. 3D printing could be used in the production of more attractive pureed foods and thickened liquids, with standardised textures and enhanced taste sensory experiences.
So on Earth and in Mars 3D food printing could be part of the future of eating!
1Mars One. URL: https://www.mars-one.com/faq/health-and-ethics/how-much-living-space-will-the-astronauts-have [04/04].
2Perchonok, M. & Bourland, C. (2002). NASA food systems : Past, present, and future. Nutrition, 18, 913-920. Cooper, M., Douglas, G. & Perchonok, M. (2011). Developing the NASA Food System for Long‐Duration Missions. Journal of Food Science, 76, R40-R48.
3Izdebska, J. (2016). 3D Food Printing: Facts and future. Agro Food Industry High Tech, 27, 33-37.
4Zwart, S. R., Gibson, C. R., Mader, T. H., Ericson, K., Ploutz-Snyder, R., Heer, M. & Smith, S. M. (2012). Vision changes after spaceflight are related to alterations in folate- and vitamin B-12-dependent one-carbon metabolism. The Journal of Nutrition, 143, 427-31.
5Tako, Y., Arai, R., Tsuga, S.-i., Komatsubara, O., Masuda, T., Nozoe, S. & Nitta, K. (2010). Ceef: Closed Ecology Experiment Facilities Gravitational and Space Biology, 23, 13-24. Boscheri, G., Lamantea, M., Lobascio, C. & Paille, C. (2016). The MELiSSA GreenMOSS Preliminary Design Study: a Greenhouse Module on the Lunar Surface. International Conference on Environmental Systems (Vienna, Austria), 1-12. Fu, Y., Rong, G. & Liu, H. (2018). An optimized 4‐day diet meal plan for ‘Lunar Palace 1’. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 99, 696-702.
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