NASA’s Big Deep Space Food Challenge Comes with a Big Prize

It’s not a question of  “will” mankind will ever step foot on Mars. It’s a question of “when” we will. However, before that happens, scientists have to answer a whole lot of other questions first. And once again NASA is turning to the public to help it solve one of the biggest. After looking for assistance developing a lunar loo, the space agency wants your best ideas on how to feed astronauts on longterm missions. And the winner of the Deep Space Food Challenge will get more than big time bragging rights. They will also get a big time prize.

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have announced Phase 2 of the Deep Space Food Challenge with a video from the food world’s own scientist Alton Brown. The international contest is looking for “novel food production system technologies” for long-duration missions in space. A system that can supply, at minimum, a three-year round-trip  that will not have a resupply. NASA and the CSA have also want a system that uses “minimal inputs” while maximizing “safe, nutritious, and palatable food outputs.” Because if we’re going to send people on years-long journeys, we’re going to need a way to provide them with healthy, tasty food. No one wants a real-life Mark Watney poop potato situation. Although, if we’re being fair, Watney did build an extremely efficient system…

The hope is that this challenge will also benefit everyone here on Earth the way past space exploration technologies have. Breakthroughs in space food production could also help remedy food issues everywhere on our planet.

An animation of Alton Brown as an astronaut on Mars carrying a basket of food away from a gorcery store

NASA will select ten US teams from the initial entrants to move on to the final on-site demonstration, with each team getting $20,000. As many as five from that group will then get $150,000 and an invitation to compete in Phase 3. (If Phase 3 is opened to competition.) US teams don’t need to be finalists to get a bonus reward either. NASA will also recognize five international teams as Phase 2 finalists. And the agency will declare as many as three as winners.

Registration for eligible teams will remain open until February 28, 2022. Multiple submission deadlines will follow in the spring and summer. NASA will name finalists in January 2023 with on-site demonstrations following the next month. And in March 2023, NASA will announce the winners.

Not a lot of time if you’re planning to start from scratch. But when the question of when we’re going to Mars, the clock is already ticking.

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