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Friday, September 24, 2021

Meet the Seattle Chef Competing in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge

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On April 16, Seattle chef Young Cho was hosting a crucial Zoom meeting and wasn’t quite sure what to wear. Among the people on the call was retired NASA veteran Herb Baker, a former supply contractor for the Johnson Space Center in Houston whose illustrious career earned him a spot in the U.S. Space Work Hall of Honor. Cho wanted to recruit Baker to be part of his team for a NASA-sanctioned contest called the Deep Space Food Challenge, which aims to find innovative solutions for feeding astronauts. Feeling the need to break the ice a bit, Cho decided to dig up an astronaut onesie he once bought as a Halloween costume and hopped on the call with a Zoom background filled with stars. “It cracked Herb up,” says the chef.

The onesie worked. Baker became an advisor for the Cho-led crew, dubbed Ad Astra. “I’m essentially the circus leader,” says Cho, who learned about the contest while passing time on the social media app Clubhouse in early 2021 as the pandemic slowed his Asian Tex-Mex catering business, Phorale, and delayed plans to open a White Center restaurant. After connecting with the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit helping coordinate the challenge, Cho started putting together a full squad, Ocean’s Eleven-style. Among some of the other experts who joined were naturopath Christopher Daugherty and Ronaldo Linares, a former marine and private chef for professional athletes.

The basic puzzle Cho and the others needed to solve was how best to feed astronauts on years-long journeys to Mars and back. That includes not just providing them with enough nutrients to survive, but also “how to keep their mental state intact” with food that’s palatable and can endure exposure to radiation and other extreme conditions. “We have nutrition standards, but astronauts also want the food to taste good, and with longer-duration space missions, it needs to have a [longer] shelf life,” says Shaneequa Vereen, public affairs officer for NASA. “Hopefully we’ll see what we can solve.”

Ad Astra submitted its proposal in time for the late July deadline. If the team is chosen for the Deep Space Challenge shortlist, it could be in line to receive around $25,000 to help execute its vision in a more detailed format. Up to 20 U.S. teams will move on to the next phase in the challenge in September. If Cho’s squad goes all the way and takes the ultimate prize, it may not only decide what astronauts eat on future missions into space, but could help launch a more sustainable food future here on Earth.

Young Cho discovered the Deep Space Food Challenge in early 2021 while on the app Clubhouse and put the Ad Astra team together.
Courtesy of Young Cho

When the project began, Cho had very little knowledge of what it would take to make a dish viable for space. But as a chef with many years of experience in sourcing different kinds of ingredients, he brought an advantage that he felt other competitors in the challenge may not possess. “There are teams that may reach for the stars, trying to come up with proposals around stuff like vertical growing technology or cricket farms,” he says. “We felt that it’s better not to reinvent the wheel — let’s try to improve what astronauts are already eating at NASA space programs.”

With research and help from Baker, who had tested many pre-space flight meals in his 40 years working for NASA, the Ad Astra team found that astronauts “eat a lot of crap,” Cho says. The food on the International Space Station tends to be on the basic side and includes snacks like peanut M&Ms because they’re compact, provide some protein, and are relatively durable.

Vereen says there is a wide variety of products available to astronauts on the station, either developed by NASA’s Food Lab or outsourced. But she confirms that a lot of food isn’t much different from what civilians buy in stores, with some commercial products that meet NASA’s standards, whether it’s tuna or chicken in pouches, or even some cookies and crackers. “We have over 250 menu items for crews [for the International Space Station] to choose from, and they do go through a taste test before they fly, where the crew gets to choose their foods: ‘I like this, I want more of this; less of that,’ that sort of thing,” says Vereen. “All their drinks are basically powdered mixes, including coffee, which need to be rehydrated.” Resupply convoys occasionally deliver special items along with other cargo, whether it’s Thanksgiving treats or fresh produce. NASA is also working on the viability of growing fruits and vegetables in space.

But for longer space missions, NASA needs to develop food items with an extended shelf life. According to the Deep Space Challenge’s introductory information, less than 10 percent of the current NASA food lab menu is viable for trips to Mars. “Astronauts would basically be spending months sucking on a toothpaste tube filled with beet powder,” says Cho. “There’s no way that will not get old.”

The team also had to factor in the incredible toll space travel takes on the body. Because of the changes in atmospheric pressure and other factors, astronauts often lose a sense of smell and taste, since a lack of gravity keeps nasal fluids from draining properly. So food mainly seems bland, no matter what the components are (the most popular condiment used by U.S. astronauts is hot sauce, and Vereen says freeze-dried shrimp cocktail with horseradish is a well-loved item). And that’s not to mention the other physical side effects that come with spending an extended amount of time in a vacuum. “These are like some high-performance, very expensive athletes coming back to the world with space anemia, bone density loss, testosterone in the dumps, a variety of different things,” says Daugherty.

A gloved astronaut hand holds a giant bunch of leafy greens against a black background with purple lighting.

NASA is currently working on the viability of growing produce in space.
Adam Voorhes

When pondering an astronaut food solution that would address both the issues of nutrient loss and flavor monotony, Cho referred to a survey conducted by the Bionutrient Food Association (an organization that Daugherty co-founded and continues to have a role with as a strategic advisor) that purported to find wide variances in the U.S. food system between the nutritional content from produce at larger corporations versus smaller farms. Considering that NASA astronauts get their food from many of the same massive private companies as average citizens who shop at supermarkets, Cho saw a major flaw to fix. “There’s no testing or accountability,” he says.

Naomi K. Fukagawa, director of the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center at the United States Department of Agriculture, doesn’t dispute that there can be wide variances in nutritional content from what people buy at the grocery store, but cautions on drawing broader conclusions based on small sample sizes and limited testing that’s not peer-reviewed. Fukagawa also emphasized that it’s important to take into context the full dietary needs of each individual. “Balance and variety are key; sustainability and reducing environmental impact should be part of the equation,” Fukagawa says. She also praises what the Ad Astra team has been trying to accomplish: “We need more innovators who aren’t afraid to try new things,” particularly when it comes to providing nutrition in a way that’s not just efficient, but more flavorful. “If they can move the needle, that would be great.”

To that end, Cho and the crew set about trying to develop one-to-one nutrient-dense substitutions for the food that astronauts typically eat, including reverse-engineering the peanut M&M to not only have enough shelf life for deep space missions (around three to five years) but also to eliminate any fillers. “We wanted to find the right ingredients that will cook well, hold well, and hold their nutrients,” says Linares, whose experience cooking for thousands of marines and developing menus for professional athletes came in handy.

Ad Astra also worked on a mac and cheese replacement using breadfruit flour instead of wheat (breadfruit is a starchy fruit indigenous to Southeast Asia), and a hot sauce using sustainable and transparent sourcing of various peppers (ranging from mild to extremely hot on the Scoville chart). “Astronauts are like the Michael Jordan of space,” Linares says. “And you need nutrients to be able to perform, but then you also have to figure out it would be reheated in the special ovens they use with limited water.”

Ronaldo Linares, Christopher Daugherty, and Young Cho (left to right) hovering over a counter while preparing food.

The Ad Astra team (Ronaldo Linares, Christopher Daugherty, and Young Cho, left to right) developed their proposal for the Deep Space Food Challenge over several months.
Courtesy of Young Cho

Every food item the team created has some form of a vitamin-infusion element to it, something that Daugherty, with his 20 years in the field of naturopathy, felt he was well-equipped to help execute. Instead of food coloring and other fillers, Ad Astra went for more “phytochemically sound” components, says Daugherty, describing compounds produced primarily by plants. In order to make sure the food was preserved properly, the team dried it in such a way as to prevent oxidation.

But the full menu still needed to come into focus. Cho (who’s Korean American) and Linares (with Colombian and Cuban heritage) say it was important to bring in more cultural diversity that would fit astronauts from all backgrounds. “Fifteen months into a mission and you’re eating fucking bullshit, what would you need to carry on? Really eating a slice of home might help,” Cho says. “Like I would love a dumpling.”

Cho notes that it has always been possible to create more culturally diverse provisions (the Russians have borscht and tinned fish as part of their space program), but it’s a matter of taking the time to develop them. “[Young and I] kind of understand those deep flavor notes and combinations of ingredients,” says Linares. “Not all astronauts are white, you know: They’re different races. So if you’re able to recreate the food they’re familiar with, I think it’ll be special for them to be able to feel like they’re still grounded.” For NASA’s part, Vereen says that the Food Lab “is looking into” creating a more diverse menu of international dishes.

Ad Astra hopes that the team members’ experiences with different types of cuisines (space bibimbap, perhaps?), as well as the science behind creating more nutrient-dense products, will set them apart when the challenge’s judges analyze their work. They also are optimistic that the proposal’s possible applications to more Earth-centric endeavors resonate, too. “It’s really about the products we can create for consumers in underserved communities,” says Cho, who has taken a hard look at what food sustainability really means for his own Seattle-based business. His still-in-the-works White Center restaurant Phorale Way settled on a farm-to-table approach in 2020 after Cho saw the rising prices of mass-produced meats along with empty shelves at grocery stores during the pandemic.

On a practical level, adapting what Ad Astra is proposing to terrestrial uses means more independent nutrition evaluation, which is something the team was able to do with the help of Stephan van Vliet, a metabolomics researcher at Duke University (and a fellow consultant, along with Baker). Every item of food went through a rigorous testing process to ensure that it was delivering a high level of nutrients; the team also calculated degradation rates and shelf stability for the final products. This type of testing is often expensive; Fukagawa says a thorough nutritional analysis for a single batch of food can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But Cho’s team hopes the food-processing methods they developed for the contest are scalable, with the aim of adapting them in some form for communities that have limited access to nutritious food or live in areas especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Ad Astra recently ended the first phase of the challenge by submitting its proposal, which includes the conceptual idea, a full deck, and a paper. In September, the Deep Space Challenge organizers will select 20 teams from the U.S., 20 from Canada, and 20 others from around the world to move into phase two, along with a $25,000 stipend to create a kitchen demonstration in front of experts. Phase three will involve warehouse space to put any prototypes into practice.

But Cho was cautious not to get too ahead of himself. It’s already been a long 18 months dealing not only with the fallout from the pandemic on his business but also coping with a recent fire in White Center that burned down his girlfriend’s under-construction boba shop, which he was helping to build. Ad Astra was a “passion project” that provided him with purpose and prevented him from “going to a dark path.” The end result may not be clear, but he and the other members involved already feel they’ve accomplished a great deal. “It’s not a clout or ego thing,” Cho says. “It’s just different — I never thought I’d be involved in something like this.”



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