NASA's Top Chef: High-School Teams Compete to Cook Astronaut Food

Quinoa Curry at HUNCH Culinary Challenge
Allison Bolton, Alicia Breuer, Aleta Luther and Baylee Hogge plate their quinoa curry during the HUNCH Culinary Challenge pre-competition tasting at NASA's Langley Research Center on Feb. 16, 2016. Teammate Marshay Moore is visible in the background. (Image credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

Last month, high-school students from around the country came to NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia for the second High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) space-food challenge .

The Feb. 16 competition saw 21 high-school teams competing for spots in the semifinals, during which 10 teams will travel to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for a tasting at the facility's Space Food Systems Laboratory. The ultimate winning team will have its entrée processed and sent to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA officials said.

This year's HUNCH challenge involves developing a vegetable entrée that's amenable to processing for flight and consumption in microgravity, and also meets the following guidelines:

  • 300-500 calories
  • Total calories from fat under 30 percent; total calories from saturated fat 10 percent or less
  • 300 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • 8 grams of sugar or less per serving
  • 3 grams of fiber or more per serving

The panel of judges at the Langley event included a former restaurant owner, a slew of Langley administrators and former NASA astronaut Charlie Camarda, who flew to the ISS on the STS-114 mission of space shuttle Discovery in 2005.

New Horizons Culinary Instructor Tonya Ward, left, and HUNCH founder and Program Manager Stacy Hale talk to the team that made the baked penne about their dish, on Feb. 16, 2016, at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. (Image credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

"The icing on the cake today was for them to actually meet an astronaut," said Tonya Ward, culinary instructor at the New Horizons Regional Education Center in Newport News, Virginia, who worked with two teams competing at the Langley HUNCH tasting.

Camarda gave mostly positive feedback.

"It's very good, very tasty," he said of the quinoa made by one of the teams. "I can definitely feel the kick. It's got a little bit of heat, and that's a good thing, especially up on orbit."

Although Camarda said he also enjoyed the pasta made by another team, he had concerns about whether or not it was durable enough to make the journey all the way up to the ISS.

"The flavor is fantastic, and the texture is fantastic," he said. "I like it. But I wonder how it will turn out with the cheese … can it reconstitute well?"

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