Astronauts rejoice: Freeze-dried spaghetti may soon be a thing of the past!

Popular spacecraft fare currently consists mainly of rehydrated meals. While this works just fine for a quick jaunt to the moon, it isn’t particularly well suited for longer trips through deep space . . . say to our friendly red neighbor, Mars.

In early 2013, NASA awarded Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) a grant to develop a new food and nutrition system for the space program as part of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. So what’s the latest and greatest in space food? They’re using 3D-printing technology!

The goal is to redesign the food and nutrition system to maximize efficiency for resource use, time and space (that would be storage space, not outer space). SMRC’s 3D-printing technology will also allow for more variety in the astronaut diet and ensure that every space cadet gets his or her vitamins. The company’s printer has already demonstrated its food-making prowess with a pizza. The pizza—a plain cheese pizza for now—was printed dough-first onto a hot plate followed by layers of tomato and cheese. SMRC plans to integrate an oven and a nutrient additive to future versions of the printer.

SMRC’s system will work by combining ink-jet and 3D-printing technologies. The 3D technology combines starches, proteins and fats to form the structure and texture of the meal, then the ink-jet will deliver nutrients, flavors and scents to create appetizing dining options. One of the most enticing draws of SMRC’s system is that it will allow astronauts to pick which meal they want each day, rather than having to plan out (and stick to) all their meals months before their launch dates. For a Mars mission, SMRC envisions combining their new 3D-printing technology with the tried and true pre-packaged meals as well as some hydroponically grown options.

The 3D-printing system also creates some opportunities for those of us living on good old terra firma. Because the system had been designed to maximize resources while minimizing waste, it has potential as an alternate food supply source to combat resource shortages; this is especially useful considering the world’s ever-growing population. In fact, estimates forecast that the Earth will be home to 12 billion people by the end of the century—that’s a lot of printed pizza!

Did You Know?

As the space program has evolved, so has its food. A standard astronaut place setting now includes Velcro-equipped packaging that holds food down in lieu of gravity, a knife, a fork, a spoon and a pair of scissors—for cutting open the packages, of course!