- James Clayton
- North America Technology Reporter
Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk want to colonize space. NASA is also trying to send people to the dusty surface of Mars.
But if humans want to establish communities on the moon or planets, what will they eat?
Many experiments have been carried out to see if plants can thrive in space.
And since last week a new test has started to see if meat cells can grow.
It was a small pilot step to test a potential source of nutrients, but perhaps a big step forward – or so the researchers hope – for future space travel.
The experiment was developed by Aleph Farms, an Israeli company that specializes in growing meat from cells. It is led by the first fully private team of astronauts to visit the International Space Station.
Skeptics, however, say the method is too shaky for astronauts to trust — and growing meat in space will never be easier than bringing it from Earth.
Growing meat from cells is not easy, especially on a large scale, even on Earth. Aleph Farms is one of many companies trying to produce “cultured meat”, but it is the first to try to do so in space.
The company doesn’t like to use the phrase “lab-grown meat,” but in reality, this process is nothing like a traditional farm.
The cells of a cow (but it can be any animal) receive the elements necessary for their growth, such as amino acids and carbohydrates. The cells multiply until muscle tissue forms, eventually becoming meat you can eat. This process is called “cultivation” or “proliferation”.
The meat is grown in vats that are more like what you’d find in a brewery than a barnyard. The life cycle of an animal raised for meat – birth, life and slaughter – is completely ignored.
Enthusiasts say the process has potentially positive implications for the environment, dramatically reducing methane emissions, for example.
Why grow meat in space?
Zvika Tamari, who leads the Aleph Farms space program, says scientists don’t know if this process can be replicated in zero gravity.
“We know from many previous scientific studies that physiology and biology behave very differently in a microgravity environment… in space”.
So when on April 8, four men flew into space aboard a SpaceX rocket for the first private mission to the International Space Station, they took with them a small box-sized container, shoes containing animal cells – and everything they need to grow.
Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, accompanied by former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. They were scheduled to return to space on Sunday, April 24, after which the cells will be closely analyzed.
But is the game worth it?
Even if the experiment is a success and there is evidence that meat can be grown in space, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.
There’s a reason local supermarkets aren’t stocked with cell-grown meat. In fact, while hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into the industry (Leonardo DiCaprio is an investor in Aleph Farms), it’s a difficult food to produce at scale.
Additionally, Aleph Farms is still awaiting regulatory approval in Israel before it can serve in restaurants. These are foods that have not yet established themselves on Earth, much less in space.
Growing meat in space poses other, more practical problems. The first is the issue of sterility.
“Animal cells grow slowly,” says David Humbird, a chemical engineer at Berkeley.
“If a bacterium or fungus got into the culture, it would grow much faster than animal cells and take over, so you don’t make animal cells anymore. Hummingbird.
Aleph Farms believes that the problem of infertility can be solved, especially in the space where relatively small amounts of meat need to be produced. But contamination would be disastrous for a community on Mars – the space equivalent of a crop failure.
Aleph Farms also argues that transporting food into space is extremely expensive. The numbers vary widely, but a 2008 NASA estimate puts the cost of transporting a kilogram of payload into Earth orbit at $10,000.
It would cost a lot more to bring a pound of food to Mars.
“Mars is millions and millions of kilometers away, so being able to produce your food locally, on-site, is a huge advantage,” says Tamari.
Humbird, however, disagrees with this potential benefit.
“Cells that are grown on edible material will be made up of sugar, amino acids and water. And the caloric value of the cells you produce will always be less than that,” he says.
“At best, you could probably eliminate 25% of calories and consume them as food. So the question is why would you take all those calories into space just to expend 75%?”
But there are other considerations to take into account when planning long space missions — like the mental health of astronauts.
Karen Nyberg is a former NASA astronaut who spent five and a half months on the International Space Station. She now serves on the Aleph Farms advisory board.
Can lab-grown meat help fight climate change?
According to her, food plays a crucial role in the psychological well-being of a crew.
“The food comes in these little white bags that you just hydrate, like powdered milk and that sort of thing… I wanted to smell the sautéed garlic and the olive oil. olive, and that’s something we don’t have. And then anything we can have to bring him home, I think would be great.”
For Nyberg, fresh foods and vegetables are vital for humans to stay off the land for years.