As part of its Future Engineers program, NASA is challenging grade-school children to create a digital 3-D model of a non-edible, food-related item that will help astronauts eat in space. The agency promises that real astronauts in the year 2050 will then print the creation using a 3-D printer. The challenge, which is co-branded with Star Trek, asks kids to make a design that will help astronauts eat nutritious meals in locations like the moon, other planets, and the International Space Station.
The non-edible, food-related items that NASA is thinking about are things like insect chambers, food preparation items, bioreactors, and tools used for growing and harvesting crops. The project's goal is to advance long-term space exploration.
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The Star Trek Replicator Challenge was announced this week at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. As the guidelines point out, eating a meal in space involves more than just chewing. Astronauts have to grow plants and prepare their own meals. NASA is facing the challenge of figuring out how astronauts can use technology to eat healthier, more varied food in space. And, of course, longer-term space missions—and even a sustainable colony on Mars—depend on a food program that works.
The agency evidently believes that 3-D printing is key to making deep-space food solutions possible. In 2014, the first 3-D printer was sent to the International Space Station. So far, the printer has been used to build things like tools, including a ratchet wrench. It is hoped that, in the future, the printers will help astronauts print everything from forks and spoons to planting boxes and machines that create protein bars.
And now kids are being brought in to help. The guidelines are certainly beyond our technical capabilities, but we imagine there are some future engineers out there who will be keeping astronauts fed well into the next century.
Now if only we could get KITT from Knight Rider to fix the auto industry, things would really be looking up.