GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If television could transmit smells, the lab that Hope Hersh works in would make you think you’re in a bakery.
“As a lab, we are obsessed with starch,” she said.
The food lab sits within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Florida. Hersh, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, is making full use of it.
“During the pandemic, there was this whole ‘make bread at home’ fad that was going on,” she said.
That got her thinking about combining her love of bread and her love of something else: space.
“I've always been interested in NASA and everything space-related,” Hersh said.
So, when NASA announced a competition – called the Deep Space Food Challenge – she got to work.
“They're looking for innovative new food technologies to be taken into deep space for long missions to the moon or Mars,” Hersh said.
Her idea: ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have freshly baked bread in space?’ It’s not as easy as it sounds. Space is limited in… well, space. So, they needed something that could easily be grown and used to make bread.
“Then I started putting algae in the bread just and testing it myself as a test to see, you know, ‘Is this palatable? Could people actually eat this in space?’ and that's how I came up with the algae bread,” Hersh said.
Nearly two years later, her special algae bread recipe baked in these special pouches is now one of the 18 food finalists NASA chose in the competition.
It all comes as NASA prepares for a “dress rehearsal” to test the largest rocket ever built. The Space Launch System – or SLS, for short – is designed to carry astronauts back to the moon and even to other planets, like Mars.
“To know that an idea that I came up with could be in space one day -- so gratifying,” Hersh said.
It is an idea that could also be used right here on Earth, a requirement that NASA set out in the competition.
“We mentioned using this as a replacement for like military meals that they have on long missions,” Hersh said, “but also in disaster relief situations because this is pre-made, it's sterilized. It can be stored for however long in any condition.”
Those include conditions that might one day be encountered by humans, who eventually venture to far-off worlds.
“For me, I just close my eyes and takes me back to when I was a kid and when I used to make bread at home,” Hersh said. “So, I hope that it gives them a little piece of earth to take with them on these long missions.”
It’s a taste of home that might one day be out of this world.