The term “cultured meat” has become a bit of a buzzword for the health food industry. This refers to meat produced in a lab using in vitro cell cultures derived from animal proteins. For many, this “alternative meat” is vital to combatting climate change by removing one of the chief causes of deforestation (making room for cattle ranches) and global warming (bovine methane emissions). For others, it’s an environmentally-friendly way of ensuring food security in an era of climate change.
But what about as a means of feeding astronauts on long-duration missions or living for extended periods beyond Earth? In this case, cultured meat would be a way of fulfilling the dietary needs of astronauts who would otherwise be entirely dependent on vegetable proteins. The possibility is currently being explored by the European Space Agency (ESA) and could be a game-changer for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond!
In the near future, the ESA and NASA plan to conduct crewed missions to the Moon that will culminate with the creation of a lunar base and other vital infrastructure. According to NASA’s outline for the Artemis Program, this will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” Given the amount of time it takes to send resupply craft from Earth to the Moon, these facilities need to have a degree of self-sufficiency, especially when it comes to food.
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The idea of using cultured meat to fulfill the nutritional requirements of astronauts operating far from Earth was initially proposed by ESA engineer Paolo Corradi. The ESA followed up on January 6th, 2021, inviting industry and academia to apply for funding through the Discovery Element of the ESA’s Basic Activities to develop the concept further. As Corradi explained in a recent ESA press release:
“For long-term human exploration missions far from Earth, we would need to transport a large amount of long-shelf-life food. This comes with the risk of food becoming degraded over time or even lost, which would significantly limit the degree of self-sustainability and resilience of the mission. And, of course, the conventional production of animal-based food, as meat, in space would be unthinkable.”
One of the biggest challenges of living and working on the Moon is the effects of long-term exposure to lunar gravity, which is roughly 16.5% that of Earth (0.165 g). While these are not well-constrained, ongoing research aboard the ISS (like NASA’s Twin Study) has shown that long-term exposure to microgravity results in muscle loss, bone density loss, and effects to cardiovascular health, organ function, eyesight, and even genetic changes.
As a result, simply sending livestock to the Moon and other locations beyond Earth is impractical. But cultured meat, which is seen as a potential solution to one of the main drivers of climate change, could be a potential means for establishing food security in space. Said Christel Paille, an ESA environment control and life support engineer who is working with Paolo on this activity:
“So, if we want to succeed in long-term human exploration far from Earth, we need to rethink our current approach to astronaut nutrition and provide the means to efficiently produce food on board, possibly integrated within the regenerative life support system.”
Two teams were selected to work in parallel to develop the technology further: a German team made up of aerospace startup yuri and Reutlingen University, and a UK team consisting of Kayser Space, Cellular Agriculture, and Campden BRI. The teams, which Paolo will oversee on behalf of ESA, will begin by analyzing and comparing cultured meat’s nutritional value and potential benefits to currently-available alternatives.
In the second step, the ESA will establish requirements based on the nutritional guidelines for astronauts and future human spaceflight missions. For this step, the teams will be supported by ESA experts, including the Space Medicine team and engineers from the Columbus laboratory – the ESA module aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The final step will see the teams coming up with a preliminary design for use in space, which will be assessed based on their feasibility and performance. These will be compared with other potential methods for producing protein-rich foods and shipping food from Earth. The teams will also assess the potential commercial applications of their concepts, both for use on Earth and in space. Daniela Bezdan (the chief science officer of yuri) explained the benefits of this project:
“The research activities of our project team on cultured meat were so far exclusively focused on applications on Earth. This project will widen our focus and allow us to transfer elements of our existing work to space applications in follow-up projects. In addition, the results of the study will help draw our attention and research efforts to the most crucial issues regarding the feasibility of cultured meat production.”
“This project provides us with the opportunity to consider the challenges of life support systems operating beyond low-Earth orbit, in long-duration space missions and different gravity environments,” added Kayser Space’s program manager Ramón Nartallo adds. “It will also help Cellular Agriculture to deliver a first bioprocess design to enable high-quality protein production, and Campden BRI to develop their knowledge in an exciting emerging field.”
On Earth, meat production is a major driver of environmental degradation. In developing nations, forests are cleared to make room for cattle-ranching, mainly to meet the demands of developing nations. In addition, the industry facilitates the spread of diseases that can trigger pandemics and the deaths of billions of animals every year. And with growing populations and demand increasing, conventional meat production will become more and more unsustainable.
Cultured meat presents an environmentally sustainable alternative, but more research is needed to mature the production technology. By investigating how cultured meat could be produced in space, where resources are very limited, this research could help mature the technology needed to grow cultured meat with greater efficiency and quantity on Earth. This contribution is also consistent with ESA’s commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Once again, space-based research could lead to applications here on Earth. Or, to once again quote Dr. Sian Proctor, “solving for space solves for Earth.”
Further Reading: ESA