With the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 being marked this week, the technological advances made through space exploration have been in the spotlight. As in so many fields, the NASA space programme has been a catalyst for significant strides in food technology and, Ben Cooper writes, space exploration offers the potential for further progress.

The attention being focused this week on the fortieth anniversary of the first Moon landing naturally prompts discussion of the technological strides made during the Apollo years.

The breakthroughs in computer technology, rocket propulsion and aeronautics may grab the limelight but the NASA space programme also fostered considerable development in food science. Just as we probably owe the advent of the microchip and the home computer to NASA’s pioneering work, the food industry boasts its share of products and processes that may never have seen the light of day had it not been for the space race.

For instance, doing all it could to prevent astronauts being taken ill during missions was a major concern for NASA so, in partnership with Pillsbury, it developed a state-of-the-art food safety system. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is now of course widespread practice in the food industry.

Anthony Pometto, professor of food science and nutrition at Clemson University in South Carolina and formerly head of the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center at Iowa State University, believes HACCP is NASA’s most important legacy to the food industry. “That would be number one on the list…a major influence, a major impact on the food industry,” he tells just-food.

But it is by no means the only legacy. The development of safe, longer-shelf-life foods was clearly critical for NASA. Pometto says NASA’s efforts fostered “the development of new technologies for producing foods with a longer shelf life”. NASA was irradiating foods long before the process began being used for the wider food sector, he points out. “That’s one technology that they’ve been using for a very long time that now the public is finally enjoying the benefits of,” Pometto adds.

While freeze-drying was not new, NASA took this method of preservation forward and was at “the cutting edge of freeze-dried foods development,” Pometto says.

There were also some important innovations in food packaging, notably work on retort flexible pouches. While the military was already using these, NASA “really pushed” their development, says Pometto, “and we’re seeing those on the shelf more now too”.

For all this achievement, there is something about food innovation for space travel that seemed to captivate the imagination in a different way from other technological feats. How and what astronauts ate in space – rather like how they performed certain other bodily functions – is often recorded with a slight sense of whimsy, in comparison with the deadly seriousness with which rockets, guidance systems, computers and radio telemetry are discussed.

It is a cause of mirth for many that NASA’s efforts may have indirectly helped spawn the creation of the Pot Noodle. Freeze-dried ice cream is bought as something of a novelty item by visitors to the Kennedy Space Center though, as Pometto points out, this was never a successful product.
But as the HACCP example underlines, the influence on food science has been significant and far-reaching. Moreover, there remains huge potential for further space-led innovation in food, bringing commercial opportunities for food companies.

The anticipated move away from freeze-dried to hydrated foods is a case in point. While the Space Shuttle, like the Apollo vehicles, gets its energy from fuel cells which make water, the International Space Station is powered entirely by solar panels. So any water used for rehydrating food has to be taken up there.

“If you’re going to make water in space then you save weight by sending up food that’s freeze-dried,” Pometto says. “But in this case you have to bring the water up anyway so they’re talking about now switching over completely away from freeze-dried foods to hydrated foods. So there’s a new area there I think that a lot of innovation could be made on a commercial scale for new tasty hydrated foods that would be great for the space programme.”

Pometto also expects further innovation in packaging, and through the work in this field at Clemson he is hoping to link up once again with NASA. The project at Iowa State was cut in 2005, along with the other 16 commercial space centers, in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

With much longer missions eventually envisaged, NASA has been placing a major emphasis on growing crops in space, with obvious opportunities for companies specialising in hydroponic and GM technologies.

Pometto says he is not sure exactly how these developments will impact on terrestrial agriculture, but that in itself is significant. The huge and diverse technological legacy of Apollo came from scientists focusing on a very particular purpose, sending a man to the Moon. The benefits and applications of those technologies to kidney dialysis, performance sportswear, DIY or any of the other diverse fields where NASA’s influence can be found, were not being explicitly considered at the time, and many would never have been predicted. And the same must be true of current research.

“That’s really the wonder of the NASA programme, that it makes everybody really think differently, because their needs are so different, and when they do that the peripheral outcomes to society are huge,” says Pometto.

An example of just such an unplanned outcome can be seen in a key trend in the food market today. In the 1980s, Martin Marietta Laboratories of Maryland experimented with the use of microalgae as a food supply, a source of oxygen and a catalyst for waste disposal on long missions, as part of NASA’s Closed Environment Life Support System (CELSS) programme.

The research showed the microalgae to be a potential source of nutritional supplements, notably fatty acids found in human milk. Scientists working on that programme eventually formed their own company, now called Martek Biosciences, which today provides DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) for baby formula and other food and drink products.

Earlier this year, Martek and several of its founders were inducted into the Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame, which recognises technologies that originated in space exploration and have subsequently had a positive impact on life on Earth.