For as long as space travel has been an achievable feat, astronauts have been consuming dehydrated or liquified meals that are nutritionally complete but provide a less than enjoyable experience. Now scientists are exploring a revolutionary new way to provide nutrition to those in space: cellular agriculture.
Food in space typically has to be prepared dehydrated or liquified in order to enable a long shelf-life and easy storage; the majority of this food comes in vacuum packs or tubes. However as long-term missions on board a spacecraft or to a planetary outpost, for example on the Moon or Mars become more feasible, astronauts will need to find ways of not just producing food in space.
Some American astronauts have already begun to grow vegetables in space, but what has not yet been established is a protein source. The idea of farming animals in space is entirely unfeasible as the conditions required to maintain life are unachievable in that environment.
An alternative is cellular agriculture. This process makes it possible to obtain a very large amount of “meat” from a limited number of animal muscle cells. In practice, a sample of cow muscle weighing just 0.5 grams, could produce roughly 80,000 burgers.
This kind of food production system could also be established as a closed loop requiring extremely minimal supply or technology injections from Earth. Thereby providing a sustainable method of feeding astronauts that does not require regular resupply trips that are both costly and sometimes dangerous for those onboard.
Companies, like SDC portfolio company Aleph Farms, are actively working to develop these closed-loop systems to create a reliable protein supply for space travelers.
Significant developments have been made since Aleph Farms successfully grew the first cellular agriculture product in space in 2019, and in April 2022 the company collaborated with SpaceX to trial their latest production method in a reduced gravity environment during a scheduled space mission. Recently Aleph Farms announced it has produced solid meat from harvested cow cells that can be grown and consumed in space, including halal meat, which is expected have a longer shelf life than conventional meat.
The company is currently working to get Food and Drug Administration and NASA approval, so their food items can be added to astronauts’ menus.
Progress made in these tests by Aleph Farms, as well as advocacy from astronauts, scientists, and organizations like the European Space Agency indicate that cellular agriculture products are close to being incorporated as regular options for astronauts. Not only does this technology offer significant benefits for the wellbeing of animals and the climate here on Earth, this technology could also be a breakthrough innovation in space.