As expected, NASA recently successfully completed the first hot-fire tests on an advanced rocket engine thrust chamber assembly using copper alloy materials.  This was the first time a series of rigorous tests confirmed that 3D manufactured copper parts could withstand the heat and pressure required of combustion engines used in space launches. In all, 19 hot-fire tests on four injector and thrust chamber assembly configurations were conducted. These successful tests represent a milestone in NASA’s use of 3D printing.  However, NASA leaders have set their sights on many other uses of 3D printing, including the on-site preparation of meals.

3D printing, also referred to “additive manufacturing” or “rapid prototyping,” is the process of making three-dimensional objects from digital designs. Two of the most common types of printers are “disposition printers,” which deposit layers of materials until the 3D object is built, and “binding printers,” which build the object by binding, usually with adhesive or laser fusing, the underlying layers, to create a whole object at the end of the process.

Perhaps this seems pretty straightforward, but delving into 3D printing applied to the preparation of food ushers in images of the Jetsons eating on their supersonic armchairs. So it won’t require much of a leap to imagine real astronauts in real space vehicles preparing 3D foods to be consumed in space.

NASA has become intrigued with the possibilities of creating 3D foods to nourish space travelers on long voyages.  It has made substantial grants to 3D researchers to produce “space foods.” Its Advanced Food Technology program is interested in developing methods that will provide food to meet safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional stability requirements for long exploration missions, while using the least amount of spacecraft resources and crew time.

The current food system wouldn’t meet the nutritional needs and five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars or other long-duration missions. Because refrigeration and freezing require significant spacecraft resources, current NASA provisions consist solely of individually prepackaged shelf-stable foods, processed with technologies that degrade the micronutrients in the foods.

Additionally, the current space food is selected before astronauts ever leave the ground, and crew members don’t have the ability to personalize recipes or really prepare foods themselves. All in all, pretty boring fare.

Over long-duration missions, a variety of acceptable food is critical to ensure crew members continue to eat adequate amounts of food, and consequently, get the nutrients they need to maintain their health and performance. But all good things (custom pizza!) come with some costs—in this case regulatory costs. While 3D printing of pizza in space is here and now, to the extent that 3D printed food becomes ever more mainstream for those of us down on the ground, the Food and Drug Administration and industry will have to give some thought to whether, and if so, how, FDA’s current regulatory framework for foods will apply and adapt to this innovative food medium.

When it comes to “conventional foods” FDA has the authority to ensure the safety and quality of “foods” – including ingredients, components, additives, as well as food utensils.  Additionally, FDA regulates the labeling of foods, such as claims regarding nutrition, health and safety. Finally, FDA regulations instill requirements for the manufacturing processes of foods, including compliance with current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) regulations.

In contrast to the regulatory framework for conventional foods, FDA currently has no regulations that specifically apply to 3D-printed foods.

Food for Thought

When it comes to 3D printing of foods, industry and FDA will have to consider and develop a regulatory framework that adapts to this new medium. At this time there are far more questions than answers, including

  • CAD File – Is a “utensil” subject to FDA regulation?
  • 3D Printer – What parameters can help maintain sanitary conditions in the production process?
  • 3D Food Ingredients – How to ensure quality, safety in distribution, product testing and packaging?
  • Final Products – How to ensure consistent quality?

The application of IP protection in space-applied uses of 3D printing calls into question IP enforcement issues, which will likely be heavily dependent on international treaties. Regarding patents, the U.S. enacted 35 USC §105 – Inventions in Outer Space – to provide some protection for U.S. patents being infringed in space.

So while 3D-printed space food may be a few years off, it is on the space agency’s radar. Pizza Night on Mars may no longer be just for the Jetsons.