Space Culinary Challenge! Students' Tasty Meal Will Feed Astronauts

HUNCH Culinary Challenge Finals
Students serve their dishes to judges during the HUNCH Culinary Challenge Finals at Space Center Houston on April 21, 2016. Astronauts, NASA food scientist, and International Space Station program officials were among the taste testers. (Image credit: NASA/David DeHoyos)

It's quite a challenge to make good food that can work in a zero-gravity environment, meet all of NASA's nutritional requirements and taste good — but high-school students from Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, New Jersey, were able to do it.

As part of the High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program, NASA centers all over the United States hosted a set of culinary challenges designed to make better-tasting astronaut food. A total of 10 teams competed at the final cook-off, held at Space Center Houston on April 21.

The Passaic County students won with a red-pepper risotto entrée. The dish will be served to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) next year. [Space Food Photos: What Astronauts Eat in Orbit]

Loose items tend to float around in space, so not just any meal can become astronaut food. Indeed, many offerings still resemble the "Meals Ready to Eat" (MREs) famously used by the U.S. the military. But astronauts on longer missions can get tired of MRE-type fare, and therefore, space fliers have come up with some ingenious ways to cook in space.

NASA astronauts and food scientists were among the judges of this year's HUNCH competition. Like the contestants on TV shows such as "Top Chef," the students' entries were graded on taste, texture, aroma and appearance. But the students' meals also had to meet stringent NASA nutritional requirements. For example, their food had to minimize sodium levels, meaning the students had to come up with different ways to add flavor.

The HUNCH contest is held annually. Last year's winner was a spicy Jamaican rice and beans dish with coconut milk prepared by students from Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia. This meal launched to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle on April 8, and crewmembers of the orbiting lab recently ate it — and enjoyed it quite a bit.

The winning dish is a red pepper risotto from Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, New Jersey. The entrée will be processed for flight and enjoyed by space station astronauts next year. (Image credit: NASA/David DeHoyos)

"We wanted to thank the HUNCH team for being able to develop such a great recipe and get it on the space station," NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, commander of the ISS' current Expedition 47, said in a video message to the Phoebus High students. "We just want to let you know that we really enjoy it, and congratulations again."

The runner-up dishes will be added to a cookbook that astronauts can use before flying. A butternut-squash puree from Hewitt-Trussville High School in Trussville, Alabama, placed second this year, and a brown-rice paella from the Huntsville Center for Technology in Huntsville, Alabama, placed third. Other finalists included a butternut-squash soup and a yam koi.

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Jesse Emspak Contributor

Jesse Emspak is a freelance journalist who has contributed to several publications, including, Scientific American, New Scientist, and Undark. He focuses on physics and cool technologies but has been known to write about the odder stories of human health and science as it relates to culture. Jesse has a Master of Arts from the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism, and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Rochester. Jesse spent years covering finance and cut his teeth at local newspapers, working local politics and police beats. Jesse likes to stay active and holds a fourth degree black belt in Karate, which just means he now knows how much he has to learn and the importance of good teaching.