Will the Food of the Future Come from Space?


Grégory Navarro is an engineer at CNES (Centre national d’études spatiales, the French national space agency), and is responsible within Spaceship France project for the development of space habitats and life support systems. The aim of the Spaceship network, launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2012 and extended to France in 2018, is to contribute to the research and development of some of the technologies that have been identified as key to establishing permanent bases on the Moon and then on Mars. Quentin Bisalli asked him, for Futuribles, about the innovations being tested in the agri-food sector as part of the preparations for space travel.

How are astronauts fed today?

G.N.: On the International Space Station (ISS), all the food consumed is sent from Earth. The regular arrival of supplies provides an opportunity for astronauts to enjoy fresh food, but otherwise they mainly consume freeze-dried food. The Veggie programme has carried out some experiments in growing food in space, but the food produced is mainly for scientific use.
However, what works for the ISS is not viable for longer missions, particularly lunar and Martian missions, where it is necessary to minimise the weight sent. It is therefore necessary to produce part of what is consumed: the long-term objective is to cover 50% of caloric requirements through local production.
To achieve this, a number of avenues are being explored within Spaceship France and elsewhere, in partnership with research groups, companies, associations, universities, etc., to investigate how to produce, process, and preserve food in space, both during spaceflight and then on site, for future lunar and Martian missions.

What are the main avenues being explored?

G.N.: For plant production, two avenues are being explored within Spaceship:
Hydroponics, which we are working on in partnership with the start-up Orius: the idea is to produce market garden plants, roots, mushrooms, etc. in highly controlled growing chambers.
Greenhouse cultivation in adverse conditions, which is being developed by Timac Agro, with whom CNES has recently formed a partnership. This company has developed extensive expertise in root networks and their interactions with the surrounding biotope, which allows it to optimise the inputs for cultivation with great precision. As far as cultivation in space is concerned, the idea is similar to that seen in the film The Martian:[1] how is it possible to grow plants in conditions that are far from optimal? Mars only has regolith — on Earth this is what is found between the cultivable soil and the parent rock — which is not ideal for plants: regolith is acidic and rich in metal oxides, but at the same time it can provide good support for a plant’s root system. The ESA and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) are working on similar projects in collaboration with Interstellar Lab.
The two solutions are complementary: hydroponics produces high yields but is vulnerable to unforeseen events, such as a power cut, whereas the growth of plants in greenhouses is less efficient but produces more robust plants. The adoption of these two solutions in parallel allows the cultivation of complementary species. In this way, we can spread the risk while receiving the benefits of each species. For example, the methods developed by Timac Agro are focused on the cultivat...