Interstellar Cuisine: One company’s mission to grow meat on the International Space Station

By Monica Athnasious

Published Apr 25, 2022 at 01:08 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

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With climate change continuing its ferocious impact on the planet, a number of new tech solutions have been brought to the table—literally. Food has been at the forefront of the conversation surrounding new sustainable technologies to curb the environmental crisis, with animal agriculture specifically needing such vital transformation. And we’ve seen this in the skyrocketing of billionaire-baked fungi fake meats as well as in the incredible rise of everything ‘lab-grown’—with the most notable concoctions being lab-grown coffee and lion meat. Yes, you read that right, lion meat.

Now, as if it couldn’t get any stranger, meat-growing labs are headed for space. Though we have seen the experimentative use of space for the development of food and drink before—take the ageing of wine among the stars and the successful growth of many plants—a new test is piloting the growth of meat cells off-planet.

As of last week, tests began to trial the experiment cooked up by Aleph Farms, an Israeli company specialising in the germination of meat from cells, the BBC reports. The food tech company, backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, partnered with SpaceX to send the first all-private team mission—made up of Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe, Mark Pathy and accompanied by former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria—to the International Space Station (ISS) with some animal cells, and all the tech wizardry needed to make it grow. According to the BBC, the team set off on 8 April and were due back yesterday, 24 April. Upon return the cells will be deeply analysed.

So, why grow meat in space when you can grow it just as easily (or undoubtedly in more abundance) on Earth? Well, the aim by Aleph Farms is to increase the length of travel for visiting astronauts that may face  nutrient limiting conditions as well as cultivate a better understanding of muscle tissue formation. The cultured meat startup stated the following, as reported by The Daily Express:

“Prolonged exploration in space, such as getting to Mars, is limited by the ability to provide quality nutrition to astronauts. Aleph Farms is developing a technological platform for the production of cultivated beef steaks in a process that consumes a significantly smaller portion of the resources needed to raise an entire animal for meat.”

The company also added that low-gravity conditions would aid in developing “a complete process of cultivated meat production for long-term space missions and build an efficient production process that reduces the environmental footprint on Earth.” The idea is, if it can crack growing meat in the harshest conditions possible, like space, then it would significantly cut environmental costs for its development here on Earth. But what’s the actual science behind it for the rest of us who have no idea how this works?

Well, Doctor Zvika Tamari, head of space research at Aleph Farms, divulged to The Daily Mail the process of cultivating meat from cells: “We start with bovine cells, grow them in bioreactors and then multiply and diversify the cellular mass. This then turns them into various cell types that exist in steak, which is muscle cells primarily, adipose or fat cells and collagen cells, which are very elastic. So we take the cells that we grow and make them into tissue that resembles the steak you eat regularly. And that is what we’re going to do on the ISS.”

Of course, while such groundbreaking methods are taking place, they are not without fault or cause for concern. It begs the question, is it really necessary? Though the startup has made some serious progress in its plans—take producing the world’s first 3D-bioprinted ribeye steak for example—it still faces major criticism. The BBC notes that the food tech organisation is yet to receive regulatory approval in Israel to actually serve up its lab-grown concoctions at restaurants—so, if we can’t even eat it on Earth yet, what’s the point of space meat?

The opinions are divided. On Aleph Farms’ side of the camp, there is an argument of prolonging space travel for astronauts, curbing the costly (figures vary) transportation of food to space and the psychological wellbeing of the astronauts to have ‘normal’ meals from home. However, David Humbird, a chemical engineer at Berkeley, disagreed on many areas of these benefits.

Humbird told the BBC that not only would sterility be an issue—contamination for a small community on Mars, let’s say, would be disastrous—but the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to transportation. “Those cells that are themselves grown on edible material are going to be sugar, amino acids, and water. And the caloric value of the cells that you make will always be less than that,” he stated.

“[In] the best case you could probably recover 25% of the calories and eat them as food. So the question is, why would you drag all those calories into space just to expend 75% of them?” he continued.

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