May 22, 2013 at 3:34 PM ET
NASA won't be printing out pizzas on Mars anytime soon, but the space agency is paying out $125,000 to study the use of 3-D printing technology for food preparation in space.
"We will be building the components for a prototype" over the grant's six-month period, David Irwin, principal investigator for the project at Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy, told NBC News.
The ideas is to use a 3-D printer to turn generic mixes of starch, protein and fat into textured foodie-type elements, and then add flavorings with an inkjet device. The result? Theoretically, you could have a warm slice of crusty-type starch material topped with fake cheese, sauce and pepperoni.
SMRC's Irwin was reluctant to discuss the project in detail, in part because the contract with NASA for a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant had not yet been signed. But he was optimistic about the long-term prospect: "We're going to do great things," he said.
NASA spokesman David Steitz said the contract was finally signed on Wednesday. The project is part of the space agency's effort to widen the menu options for future space travelers when they head out to Mars or a near-Earth asteroid. Right now, astronauts are eating mostly pre-packaged, pre-processed, shelf-stable foods. But that won't work for a trip to the Red Planet.
"The current food system is not adequate in nutrition or acceptability through the five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars, or other long-duration missions," Steitz said in an email.
Steitz stressed that the Phase I study is just one small step in what's likely to be a years-long effort to build a 3-D space food printer. "There's a lot between this and a pizza," he told NBC News.
Hello, 'Star Trek'
3-D printing technology could open the way toward the kinds of food synthesizers you've seen in 45-year-old episodes of "Star Trek." Basic unflavored ingredients could be kept in long-term storage — up to 30 years, according to a report on the project published by Quartz. The 3-D printer could build up different blends of the basics with different textures. Food-specific flavorings could be sprayed onto the components of synthetic food. Thus, the same device could turn out pizzas on one day, and tacos on the next.
"It has some merit as a way to avoid some of the problems that are currently experienced with the limited shelf life of the pre-prepared foods that are used by the astronauts," said Jean Hunter, a space food researcher at Cornell University who isn't involved with the 3-D-printing project. "One of the keys to having a good food system is to have a lot of variety."
SMRC's proposal to NASA says that "the biggest advantage of 3-D printed food technology will be zero waste, which is essential in long-distance space missions."
One small step: a cookie
As an initial experiment, SMRC researcher Anjan Contractor produced a chocolate-covered cookie using a 3-D printer, and Quartz quotes him as saying a 3-D-printed pizza is his next objective. If the project turns out the way Contractor and his colleagues hope, we may be seeing a cornucopia of food printouts on Earth as well as in outer space. SMRC says the technology could offer an alternative to the current ready-to-eat meals served up by the military, and even a solution to the world's future food woes.
"With the anticipated world population of 12 billion by the end of the century, the current infrastructure of food production and supply will not be able to meet the demand of such a large population," the company says in its NASA proposal. "The conventional technologies can only provide marginal efficiency, which is not enough in keeping food prices at affordable level for the population growth. By exploring and implementing technologies such as 3-D printing, this may avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars."
What do you think? Is 3-D printing the technology that will feed us on Mars, and on Earth? Will it become a future fast-food fad? Or will the novelty eventually go stale? Feel free to register your opinion using the informal survey above, or add your comments below.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.