The Taste of Deep Space Is Pizza

NASA awards a $125,000 grant for the development of a 3D food printer.

Domino's doesn't deliver past the atmosphere, but don't worry—astronauts might soon be able to print a pizza in space. (Illustration: Catherine Manzanares)

May 21, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

If you were ever that kid who pretended that the melt-y cardboard texture of freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream wasn’t disgusting (because that’s what the astronauts eat and astronauts are undeniably cool), we have unappetizing space-food news for you: Deep space exploration will be fueled by pizza. 3D-printed pizza.

NASA has awarded Systems & Materials Research Corporation’s Anjan Contractor (which is his actual name—not the surname we’ll all have to adopt in the post-employment state) a six-month, $125,000 grant to work on a prototype food fabrication machine.

Unlike other highfalutin ideas for printed food—which, behind the technology talk, never sound all that useful—Contractor’s concept is simple and utilitarian: Cartridges of powdered ingredients take the place of plastic polymers, the pulverized carbohydrates, proteins and fibers mixed with water and oil as the dish is built up layer by layer. The cartridges Contractor envisions would be impressively shelf-stable, lasting for 30 years.

That quarter-life shelf life is attractive to the colonize-Mars faction of the space program and its watchers, but Contractor is looking at the terrestrial possibilities of the technology too. He tells Quartz, “I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently. So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

Meaning home cooking will look decidedly less like Michael Pollan’s vision and more like something out of a science fiction film (Star Trek’s replicator is proving to be a popular pop comparison). But in terms of feeding 12 billion people, it’s less about the printer vs. the stove than the issues of sustainable ingredients and waste. We aren’t talking about farmers markets lettuces and grass-fed beef here, but 30-year stockpiles of pulverized mealworms and crickets, amongst other unappetizing, high-yield, low-input foods. As Quartz puts it, ever so lightly, “Contractor is agnostic about the source of the food-based powders his system uses.”

But for now, pizza. Quartz describes the process:

Pizza is an obvious candidate for 3D printing because it can be printed in distinct layers, so it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time. Contractor’s “pizza printer” is still at the conceptual stage, and he will begin building it within two weeks. It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor.

It might sustain the first manned flight to Mars, it might make life possible in an ever-more populous world (and it might be funded by taxpayer dollars), but we can’t help thinking of the 3D-printed pizza as the sustenance of choice for the doomsday preppers of the not-too-distant future, who will be armed to the teeth with 3D-printed shotguns, naturally.