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Deep Space Food Challenge

DSFC Image

As space missions increase in duration and distance, it will not be possible to bring all of the required crew consumables (air, water and food). The Deep Space Food Challenge incentivizes innovators globally to advance the field of food production technologies to meet both space exploration and terrestrial needs. This Challenge represents the first of its kind international collaboration between NASA, Centennial Challenges Program (CCP), the Canadian Space Agency and Impact Canada.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

In space, it only makes sense to collaborate; after all, no matter where they are from, all space crew, technology, tools and spacecraft end up in – or are aiming for - the same objective. Many of our basic needs are the same, including the need to supply crew with access to healthy, safe and nutritious food over long duration missions. Additionally the need for efficient use of volume, water, and other inputs for producing food could enable technologies with reduced impact on the resources needed for food production here on Earth, especially in extreme environments, disaster-affected area and resource-scarce regions. Innovations in plant production and other advanced and advancing food production systems (3D printing of food, aquaculture, cellular agriculture, etc.) warrant exploration as they could all potentially address some piece of these challenges.

As international partners are focused on a pathway to sustainable presence on the lunar surface, a growing emphasis on food systems is required for long-duration missions to become feasible. The primary capability gaps that remain to address challenges in food system production are: system reliability, system closure (resource reuse/recycling), crew safety, food variety and nutrition, power requirements and crew time. Although there are many food systems on Earth that may offer benefits to space travellers, the ability of these systems to meet spaceflight demands has not yet been established. This challenge presents an opportunity to push new and existing technologies forward in an effort to meet these demands.

The potential scale for solutions is significant; while needs for space exploration are clearly outlined but more distal, the advancement of novel food productions systems can achieve greater scale on earth while helping to incentivize the market for commercial applications of the solutions, on earth and in space.

The Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC) is an open innovation approach, designed to incentivize new ideas and innovators to address a technology gap. It is a stage-gated challenge prize, moving innovators from concept designs to prototype demonstrations that can be tested first in a kitchen environment and eventually as part of a full food production system

The DSFC is being developed jointly between NASA, CSA and Impact Canada, and executed in parallel competitions. The NASA-led and CSA-led challenges share a common design, which includes the challenge statement, structure, timeline and assessment criteria. Each country has their own respective jury and prize purses for their national participants. Coordination is maintained regularly between the organizing teams and with both jury panels to ensure consistency in the implementation, particularly for communications and the evaluation process.

While there are many stellar examples of cross-border collaboration in space, this challenge represents the first time the teams have partnered to use an innovative method like public prize competitions to more rapidly and collectively advance towards their goals. NASA and the CSA recognized the benefits of working together, and coordinated efforts around the first internationally led Centennial Challenge.

Methods and tools used to implement the challenge vary somewhat on each side of the border, but generally include: dedicated challenge planning teams who work together regularly and rigorously, access to authorities to enable payment for outcomes, digital platforms that enable challenge application and assessment, external juries to assess ideas and a shared approach to evaluation and learning.

The DSFC challenges innovators to “Create novel food production technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious, and palatable food outputs for long-duration space missions, and which have potential to benefit people on Earth”. As such, the beneficiaries of the solutions incubated as part of the challenge will be both earth-bound humans and space explorers - the advancement of controlled environment food production technologies in harsh or remote climates can support greater food production in other milder environments, including urban centres where vertical farming, urban agriculture and other novel food production techniques can play a more significant role.

While there are no borders in space, this cross-border collaboration could play an integral role in helping keep long-duration space crews healthy as they set their sights on the moon and Mars.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

The DSFC represents a couple firsts for the organizations involved in its realization. For NASA CCP, it is the first Challenge to be developed in collaboration with another space agency. For CSA, it is the first Challenge and outcomes-based approach implemented by the Agency and marks the beginning of a collaboration with Impact Canada (IC) housed in the Privy Council Office. An IC Fellow joined CSA in June 2020 to guide the team through design and approvals, seeking authorities ahead of the launch. The IC Fellowship program, designed to attract external talent with specialized skills, aims to increase capacity of federal departments implementing outcomes-based approaches. The development of open innovation and outcomes-based approaches is creating a new space for innovators of any background to propose solutions to create novel technologies for space and to solve everyday challenges for citizens, in an industry long known to be restricted to governments and large aerospace companies.

What is the current status of your innovation?

Phase 1 of the Challenge launched on January 12, 2021; it is a stage-gated challenge with subsequent phases running until the Spring of 2024. From the first meeting between Impact Canada and NASA in late 2019, to bringing in CSA and solidifying the collaboration and design, the time from idea to implementation was 12 months. During that time frame, an Impact Canada Fellow was on-boarded at CSA to guide the design, approvals and implementation of this innovative approach for the agency. Implementation phases include the Phase 1 Design Report, Phase 2 Kitchen Demonstration and Phase 3 Full System Demonstration. Phase 1 currently includes common targeted outreach activities. Both Canadian and US partners are already planning for the evaluation and knowledge sharing components on the project, with Canadian applicants being involved in a rolling horizontal review of challenge outcomes and both countries already working on knowledge products about key planning and design insights.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

The DSFC was launched in Canada by CSA, in collaboration with Impact Canada. PCO provides expertise, access to flexible authorities and their challenge platform. BioEnterprise and Zone Agtech are working with CSA to reach innovators across Canada.
In the U.S., the DSFC was launched by NASA Centennial Challenges Program, with their partner, the Methuselah Foundation.
CSA and NASA are the challenge hosts in their respective countries and will support innovators both financially and non-financia

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

This challenge has the potential to drive innovation and benefit end users in space and on earth. Testing a sustainable system on the Moon that meets crews’ needs is a fundamental step for both lunar sustainability and Mars exploration. Here on earth, there are needs for technologies that reduce impact on the resources needed for food production, especially for communities in extreme environments, disaster-affected area and resource-scarce regions. Innovators also benefit from the experience.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

The challenge seeks to incentivize innovators to advance food production technologies to support long duration missions in space. Launching a challenge engages new players to create breakthrough solutions that will support space, as well as improve food accessibility on Earth.

Challenges have a ‘look and feel’ that are different from other funding programs. This strategy of openness and transparency can attract new talent and enhancing capacity of the field, leading to new ideas which may become viable solutions to the problems that challenges aim to solve. In this way, enhanced awareness among communities of potential solvers is a critical early success factor for challenges.

After 3 months, the DSFC has gathered tremendous support with innovators and public imagination on social media, with engagement surpassing that of larger, high-visibility missions. Dozens of articles have been published in the media, and close to one thousand participants attended the first three webinars.

Challenges and Failures

During the planning stages, the greatest risk to this project would have been a failure to seize the opportunity to collaborate. NASA was well into their planning process, having executed many similar projects, whereas for CSA, it was their first challenge. Each party had to be willing to accommodate the negotiation and approval processes for the entirety of the challenge design and collaboration.
There were initial concerns as to whether each party’s core needs would be met, especially whether there would be a dilution of funding or focus across the border. These concerns have been mitigated to date through a strong desire to collaborate, distinct but parallel challenges, and the necessary supporting infrastructure that both NASA and Impact Canada provide to enable rapid deployment of the challenge prize method. Clear and consistent communication between planning teams, along with a general spirit of cooperation have significantly contributed to the success of the challenge thus far.

Conditions for Success

A common mission, and desire to solve issues bigger than one country alone could do: successes in space have relied on international collaboration.
Complementarity between the subject matter experts and innovation leads: Impact Canada and NASA are both playing the crucial role of guiding agencies with a rigorous methodology through a new and innovative process. In Canada, PCO provides support and services through its Centre of Expertise, access to flexible authorities for funding, and an integrated challenge platform. Both countries are working with their respective framework, enabling innovative funding mechanisms.
Strong leadership and dedicated teams: both CSA and NASA have demonstrated a desire to collaborate, to innovate and to overcome potential structural barriers to make the project a reality. Clearly defined roles for challenge managers from both agencies to lead and drive the timeline and deliverables has also contributed to a strong development and execution process.


While both challenge approaches and space-related challenges existed before the DSFC, this project brought them together across the border and to the CSA for the first time. CSA is in the early stages of development of a second challenge, and both parties are valuing the tremendous potential of international collaborations in the context of matters that span beyond borders. The success of the DSFC to date may inspire emerging space agencies to open up their problem solving process to innovators, and encourage international agencies to co-design such open innovation challenges. For example, Nesta Challenges in the UK, has been a key partner for Impact Canada and has also identified many opportunities for challenges to be used to address spatial and terrestrial issues, thus demonstrating that the opportunity to replicate both the challenge and the cross border collaboration is clear and present.

Lessons Learned

Impact Canada infrastructure acted as a key enabler for the CSA to take advantage of the rapidly unfolding partnership opportunity. Clarity in roles and processes, especially where it is important to mandate and public perception of the opportunity. While the teams shared common objectives, assessment criteria and overall challenge design, it was important to maintain a distinction in the prizes available in each country. Encouraging collaboration, while keeping key fiscal, or governance processes clear and unique was integral. For NASA, this is the first Centennial Challenge run in coordination with an international partner, and another space agency. There have been extensive learnings, including: Navigating joint internal approvals; Requirements for Canada that impact the challenge on the CSA side (ex: bilingualism) and; Best practices from Impact Canada that can be integrated into NASA processes and procedures.

Anything Else?

There are significant benefits for teams of innovators competing in the challenge. Exposure and experience garnered through this challenge will:
•Enable the creation and enhancement of new companies which could offer new and sustainable jobs
•Give opportunities for innovators from underserved and/or unreached communities to bring forward new ideas and technologies
•Further develop and demonstrate new and emerging technologies for use in space applications which could also result in the technology becoming mainstream and more available and cost effective

For NASA and CSA, as with any new endeavor, there were some roadblocks along the way. But both agencies made it a priority to collaborate together to solve and overcome those roadblocks, resulting in the launch of this first-of-its-kind shared open innovation challenge. There has to be the commitment on all sides to collaborate around a common goal, to benefit communities on Earth and in Space.

Supporting Videos


  • Generating Ideas or Designing Solutions - finding and filtering ideas to respond to the problem or opportunity

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

31 August 2021

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