It's a biology problem
Great and (always) informative essay and so exciting to learn that many are already working hard on biotech solutions for space!
Are there any companies or labs currently working on biological structure design? Either with mycelium or any other "raw material" organism?
As I always think about it, biopharma is just a tiny part of what the biotech industry can deliver to humanity.
The $1000 per kg to Orbit is just not more then a Billionaires marketing claim.
Also, there are multiple more problems to solve if you ask NASA scientists. The rockets supposedly made/designed for this (fE Starship) couldn't land on Mars regolith, so there would be a huge amount of smaller crafts needed to prepare a landing site and so on ...
Thanks for writing this! It was nice to get an update on the research in this space; I'll definitely dig deeper and look into some of the references too.
A couple of years ago I took part in the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge in which my team tried to design a fully circular space-based food system, which taught me a lot about the challenges involved.
First off, plants are a no-go with current or near-future payload sizes due to their relatively low volumetric productivity; if you're going via the photosynthetic route you more or less have to use an optimised strain of a fast-growing cyanobacterium such as Synechococcus. It's not really possible to get a suitable macronutrient profile with wildtype, so you'd have to carry out significant metabolic engineering to make the relative production rates of the different macronutrient classes tunable and/or carry out secondary fermentation of the cyanobacterial biomass.
There are some challenges on the process side as well, namely sterilizing and degrading waste streams into substrates for the bacteria while minimising sludge formation, creating mixing and aeration systems for bioreactors that function in microgravity, and processing of biomass to remove and recycle excess nucleic acids, which are not safe to consume at the proportion they normally occur at in bacterial biomass. And that's not to mention processing all of this into something that would be edible. So it's a enormous challenge, but in an exciting way!
Unfortunately I'm not sure the institutional players are taking the right approach. The NASA challenge ended up having some pretty questionable winners (one of them violated mass conservation) which made the whole thing seem more like a publicity stunt than a serious competition. And the main EU project on closed-loop food systems, MELiSSA, is a mess IMO; it's trying to cram in too many different technologies and design approaches and not paying enough attention to the hard physical constraints involved.
Thanks for reading! :)
I wrote this piece on the same subject:
I hope you find it useful.