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The NASA Advanced Food Technology Project is On One Republican's List of Wasteful Federal Programs

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) just released his annual “Wastebook,” a hand-picked what’s-what of what he describes as the "100 worst examples of wasteful and unnecessary federal spending he and his staff uncovered in the past year.” 

On this list is NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Project, which Coburn characterizes as a multi-million dollar Martian pizza experiment. “You do not need to be a rocket scientist to realize the millions of dollars being spent to taste test Martian meals that may never be served is lost in a black hole.” There is a valid point here: “It will likely will be decades before an American astronaut sets foot on Mars.” However, Coburn’s anti-spending propaganda does not fully inform the waste-minded American taxpayer about what, exactly, NASA’s AFT Project does.

According to NASA's budget “Advanced food technology provides a safe, nutritious, and acceptable food system to maintain crew health and performance. Technology development addresses nutritional, psychological, safety, and acceptability requirements while minimizing mass, volume, waste, power, and trace gas emissions.”

There are six people, human beings who require food, in space right now. These astronauts, all on the International Space Station, are brought freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped food (and ice cream) every six months from transportation capsules (like SpaceX’s Dragon). The food the astronauts on the ISS eat is developed and produced in the Space Food Systems Laboratory. But there are limitations to what the SFSL can produce.

ISS expedition astronauts are only in orbit for six months at a time, and the travel time to and from earth is only a few days. Mars, on the other hand, is months of travel time away, and astronauts would likely stay there for 18 months. Resupply missions wouldn’t happen every six months. This requires food with a shelf life upwards of three years — something NASA hasn’t developed yet. 

This is one of the problems the AFT is working on — the optimization of packaging to lighten loads and increase shelf life. The AFT is also looking into the possibility that “future missions may require a portion of the diet to be grown, processed, and prepared in the space habitat.” The project is researching nutrient deterioration in shelf-stable long-life foods. In missions more than three times as long as those to the ISS, it is important that “astronauts get the proper amount of nutrients, calories and minerals to maintain their physical health and performance for the life of the mission,” says Maya Cooper of Lockheed Martin, one of the AFT researchers.

Though the AFT is developing strategies for a mission years away (2030s), its research has already been implemented in ISS food production, immediately benefiting the astronauts currently in space.

Aside from the fact that astronauts aboard the ISS have to eat, Cornell University Professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering Jean Hunter says that “astronauts on the International Space Station...tend to eat less, which can put them at risk for nutritional deficiency, loss of bone and muscle mass, and reduced physical capabilities.” Such deterioration can put their lives at risk and their missions in jeopardy. Additionally, food “enhances the psychological well-being of the crew by establishing a familiar element in an unfamiliar and hostile environment.” No one wants an unhappy astronaut.

In the entire Human Research Program, NASA is requesting $164.7 million in fiscal year 2013, a 4.4% increase from 2012. The HRP includes a variety of segments critical to the health of astronauts in space, including medical standards development and research into behavioral health, space radiation, environmental health, and food technology. The Advanced Food Technology Project is a small segment of the overall HRP budget, and the Mars pizza research itself accounts for only $1 million of that plus another $947,000 in research grants awarded to universities.

The AFT project is critical to the success not only of future missions, but also to the health and well-being of the American, Russian, and Japanese astronauts currently aboard the ISS. This Martian pizza money is pennies compared to the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Mission contract that NASA and SpaceX have signed to support the needs of the ISS, and the $50 million NASA now has to pay the Russians on a per-astronaut basis to hitch a ride into space since the demise of our own shuttle program.

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