What NASA Brings Back To Earth

In 2017, the three winners of NASA’s Poop Challenge shared a $30,000 prize. Instead of diapers, NASA needed a device that would withstand zero gravity, accommodate up to 6 days of poop, urine and menstruation, and enable walking, bending, and sitting. The prize recipients suggested an air powered system, zero gravity underwear, and perineal access. Included among NASA’s innovations, the results of the Poop Challenge will surely help us on earth also. (But I am not sure how.)

It will be easier to see the relevance of the NASA space food challenge Phase 1 winners.

The NASA Space Food Challenge

Working with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA wants to develop tasty nutrient-laden food systems that will last for multi-month and even years-long missions. They noted that the proposals should also function in “resource-scarce” regions on earth.

More precisely, they have in mind a three-year mission, a four person crew, and a food system with minimal inputs and waste.

Recently, NASA announced the Phase I winners. Each of the 18 U.S. team winners will get $25,000 and be asked to participate in Phase 2 .

These were some of the winning ideas that I especially liked:

Since I am a bread lover, this one topped my list:

It would be ideal if we all started to optimize our use of insects:

This description was rather enticing:

There are 15 more. During March, 2023, we will find out the Phase 2 winners. But then, they move on to Phase 3. NASA described what the teams can win:

NASA’s Innovations

In 2016, the California Jet Propulsion Laboratory listed 20 of NASA’s innovations. The list included these items:

  • Because NASA needed small cameras for spacecraft, we wound up with phone cameras.
  • Nike can thank NASA for Air Trainers that are the descendants of suit construction technology.
  • Black & Decker developed the dust buster when NASA asked for a device that would suck up moon samples.
  • When they needed hands free communication capability, NASA started us on the road to wireless headsets.
  • And we all think of Tang but it really is about freeze dried food that retains the nutrients but sheds the weight of the food that it once was.

Our Bottom Line: Positive Externalities

Defined as the impact of an agreement on an uninvolved third party, a positive externality reflects ripples of something good. Vaccines create positive externalities because their recipients keep unknowing individuals disease free. So too does mowing a lawn when it nudges up nearby home prices. And similarly, the devices that NASA needed for space travel, like dust busters, make countless couch crevices clean.

Returning to where we began, NASA has positive externalities in mind when they suggest that a new food “sprouting” system will help us at home as well as in space.

My sources and more: You can read about all of the 18 U.S. NASA Space Food Challenge winners here. Because this post is an updated version of last year’s, I’ve included my sources from then too:

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for alerting me to the NASA Food Challenge. And thanks to Mason S. for asking me about what you cannot eat in space (and inspiring my creative thinking). From there, I found the NASA poop challenge winners and the California Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s innovation list. Finally, for more on poop, you might enjoy (as did I) this Wired story on NASA’s $23 million toilet (and the target practice it requires).

Originally published at https://econlife.com on February 17, 2022.




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Located at the intersection of current events, history, and economics, econlife® slices away all of the layers that make economics boring and complex.

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