uropean Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti ate the first food containing spirulina in space. Ms. Cristoforetti is the seventh ESA astronaut and the first female ESA astronaut to complete a long-duration mission in space.
Preparing for long missions far from Earth, astronauts will need to harvest their own food. ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative team, or MELiSSA, is experimenting with closed ecosystems that continuously recycle waste into food, oxygen and water.
Spirulina have been a staple of MELiSSA for many years because they are easy to grow and multiply rapidly. They turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and can be eaten as a delicious protein-rich supplement, and are even highly resistant to radiation in outer space.
During his stay on the International Space Station mission, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen tested cereal bars containing spirulina collected through MELiSSA’s system to ensure that they taste good in space.
Now the knowledge from these missions is being applied to a pilot project in Congo. A Belgian partner in the MELiSSA project, the SCK·CEN Research Center has been involved for many years researching spirulina’s gene expression, enzyme activity, how they absorb light, how they move during growth and how they ingest nutrients.
The two groups’ combined knowledge is now being applied in the Congo town of Bikoro, where spirulina will be used to supplement the local diet with much-needed protein as well as vitamin A and iron. In the pilot phase, spirulina will be grown in tubs of water with potassium bicarbonate and other ingredients that can be found locally.
Under sunlight and regular stirring, the tubs are easy for harvesting and provide for a family of six. The spirulina is dried and powdered, with 10 grams sprinkled on food each day – enough to satisfy most dietary requirements – while adding a slightly saltier taste to a dish.
“When we started working on MELiSSA over 25 years ago we were inspired by ecosystems such as found around lake Chad, 1500 km to the north of Bikoro,” says Ms. Cristoforetti. “It is fitting that our work creating a circular ecosystem is now helping the local population as well as future astronauts in space.”