Back in 2013, when NASA was still setting its sights on a human mission to Mars, a team of Texas researchers won a federal grant to build a 3D printer that could pump out customized food in space.
The natural first choice for a demo? Pizza, of course.
But just after the first version was finished and a second grant was due to arrive, researcher Anjan Contractor and his team at the Systems and Materials Research Corporation in Austin, Texas, received the discouraging news that their second grant had been pulled. Congressional budget cuts forced the space agency to give up auxiliary projects aimed at a future Mars mission, including work on the 3D food printer.
So Contractor decided to reformat the idea into a more earthly enterprise and start a company, BeeHex. Setting his aim at hungry sports fans and theme park visitors, BeeHex's goal is to make customized, on-demand 3D printed pizzas at concerts and arenas. Customers would order the pizza through an app, pay remotely and pick up the meal once it's finished.
"One thing we're trying to solve is the half time bottleneck when everyone rushes concessions," said Jordan French, BeeHex chief marketing officer.
The original 3D food printer would have been further designed for a range of food and would have had the ability to change nutritional requirements on-demand—helpful if an astronaut is sick and are several million miles from a doctor's office, Systems and Materials Research Corportation principal investigator David Irvin said in 2013, when plans for a space printer were ongoing.
Plus, when a mission lasts five years, it's tough to have a lousy chef. Former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox, who worked on the International Space Station in 2003, told me back in 2013 that hot sauce can only stretch so far, and astronauts crave food with spice and a crunchy texture after months of prepackaged meals.
"Let's say it could make different types of bread or noodle dishes, things that are tough to make up there, they'll get used for sure," he said. "Pizza's a big one. It would be nice to print a pizza."
The shift away from celestial considerations meant making some changes to the printer's design, he said. Originally, the printer would have mixed core ingredients—think flour, water, oil—with the specific nutrients each astronaut needed each day and would then print out the meal, Irvin said.
But BeeHex's printer is set up so restaurants can pour in pre-made ingredients, like pizza dough, that will be pumped out through multiple nozzles. There's a dough nozzle, a sauce nozzle and, of course, a cheese nozzle. The company also touts the machine as self-cleaning and faster than a pizza chef (four minutes for BeeHex verses nine minutes for a human).
The company is also starting to experiment with printing chocolate and icing, French said. Chocolate printers have already been successful in the commercial market for their ability to print custom designs, such as a Yoda or your own face out of chocolate.
Much of the product's focus is on entertainment—the cool factor of being able to watch a star-shaped pizza printing at a restaurant or amusement park before your eyes.
Some of the stereotypical theatrics may be why the printer got nixed from the NASA budget after the first phase. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) was among the lawmakers who criticized the initial $125,000 grant, including the pizza printer in his annual "wastebook".
An early alternative goal was also to use the printer to help relieve food insecurity in impoverished regions of the world by providing printers and shipping over dry ingredients and nutrients that could be assembled in the machine, Irvin said. For now, the project now focuses on quick eats and tourist attractions.
As BeeHex enters its first investment funding round, the original prototype built for astronaut's needs remains in NASA's custody.
"What we anticipate will happen is NASA will come to us at BeeHex when they do actually get around to developing a 3D food printer for Mars," French said.