Deep Space Food Challenge

As space missions increase in duration and distance, it will not be possible to bring all of the required crew consumables (air, water and food). The Deep Space Food Challenge incentivizes innovators globally to advance the field of food production technologies to meet both space exploration and terrestrial needs. This Challenge represents the first of its kind international collaboration between NASA, Centennial Challenges Program (CCP), the Canadian Space Agency and Impact Canada.

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In space, it only makes sense to collaborate; after all, no matter where they are from, all space crew, technology, tools and spacecraft end up in – or are aiming for - the same objective. Many of our basic needs are the same, including the need to supply crew with access to healthy, safe and nutritious food over long duration missions. Additionally the need for efficient use of volume, water, and other inputs for producing food could enable technologies with reduced impact on the resources needed for food production here on Earth, especially in extreme environments, disaster-affected area and resource-scarce regions. Innovations in plant production and other advanced and advancing food production systems (3D printing of food, aquaculture, cellular agriculture, etc.) warrant exploration as they could all potentially address some piece of these challenges.

As international partners are focused on a pathway to sustainable presence on the lunar surface, a growing emphasis on food systems is required for long-duration missions to become feasible. The primary capability gaps that remain to address challenges in food system production are: system reliability, system closure (resource reuse/recycling), crew safety, food variety and nutrition, power requirements and crew time. Although there are many food systems on Earth that may offer benefits to space travellers, the ability of these systems to meet spaceflight demands has not yet been established. This challenge presents an opportunity to push new and existing technologies forward in an effort to meet these demands.

The potential scale for solutions is significant; while needs for space exploration are clearly outlined but more distal, the advancement of novel food productions systems can achieve greater scale on earth while helping to incentivize the market for commercial applications of the solutions, on earth and in space.

The Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC) is an open innovation approach, designed to incentivize new ideas and innovators to address a technology gap. It is a stage-gated challenge prize, moving innovators from concept designs to prototype demonstrations that can be tested first in a kitchen environment and eventually as part of a full food production system

The DSFC is being developed jointly between NASA, CSA and Impact Canada, and executed in parallel competitions. The NASA-led and CSA-led challenges share a common design, which includes the challenge statement, structure, timeline and assessment criteria. Each country has their own respective jury and prize purses for their national participants. Coordination is maintained regularly between the organizing teams and with both jury panels to ensure consistency in the implementation, particularly for communications and the evaluation process.

While there are many stellar examples of cross-border collaboration in space, this challenge represents the first time the teams have partnered to use an innovative method like public prize competitions to more rapidly and collectively advance towards their goals. NASA and the CSA recognized the benefits of working together, and coordinated efforts around the first internationally led Centennial Challenge.

Methods and tools used to implement the challenge vary somewhat on each side of the border, but generally include: dedicated challenge planning teams who work together regularly and rigorously, access to authorities to enable payment for outcomes, digital platforms that enable challenge application and assessment, external juries to assess ideas and a shared approach to evaluation and learning.

The DSFC challenges innovators to “Create novel food production technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious, and palatable food outputs for long-duration space missions, and which have potential to benefit people on Earth”. As such, the beneficiaries of the solutions incubated as part of the challenge will be both earth-bound humans and space explorers - the advancement of controlled environment food production technologies in harsh or remote climates can support greater food production in other milder environments, including urban centres where vertical farming, urban agriculture and other novel food production techniques can play a more significant role.

While there are no borders in space, this cross-border collaboration could play an integral role in helping keep long-duration space crews healthy as they set their sights on the moon and Mars.

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