From Feces To Dinner; How NASA Is Funding Research To Turn Poop Into Food

Space isn't always pretty.

Just weeks after chowing down on their first space-grown food, NASA astronauts are facing a much less appetizing meal in their near future: poop. 

That's right, NASA recently awarded Mark Blenner of Clemson University an approximately $200,000 grant that's listed on their website as "Synthetic Biology for Recycling Human Waste into Food, Nutraceuticals, and Materials: closing the Loop for Long-Term Space Travel."

Translation: he's looking into how to turn human waste into food. 

Mealtime on the ISS. Photo credit / NASA
Mealtime on the ISS. Photo credit / NASA www.nasa.gov

The necessity is simple. if NASA plans to send a manned aircraft to mars, space will be limited: between people, food, fuel, oxygen, appliances and places to sleep, room and resources.

To help make room, and to make long-term visits to a place like Mars possible, they'll need to find a way to recycle human waste. It's not an entirely new concept for astronauts, either. They are already drinking their own urine aboard the International Space Station.

"Right now, if you want to go on a space mission, you better be ready to drink your own urine," Michael Flynn, a research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, told USA Today in 2011.

That technology is rather simple: heat is applied to separate the waste from the water, and then it is distilled into what can be safe drinking water. 

Making Mars possible will be a little more difficult.

Despite the breakthrough in space-grown vegetables we had this month, it's clear NASA has concerns about more sustainable and more efficient ways to store food. 

"These early career researchers will provide fuel for NASA's innovation engine," Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said. "Technology drives exploration, and investments in these technologies and technologists are essential to ensure NASA and the nation have the capabilities necessary to meet the challenges we will face as we journey to Mars."

The research Blenner and Clemson will do seems part of a larger initiative that aims to provide "the means to produce food, medical supplies and building materials on site at distant destinations using synthetic, biology-based approaches." Blenner is a synthetic biologist, and this new task could certainly be a staple of his career.

Cover photo courtesy of NASA