Keen to engage younglings with the science fiction of yore, NASA has put an interesting new challenge to its K-12 audience: design the future of space-based food production, using the real-life version of Jean-Luc Picard's tea machine. In collaboration with the American Society for Mechanical Engineers Foundation and Star Trek, NASA launched the Star Trek Replicator Challenge this week at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. The initiative calls on students to design 3D printable hardware needed to grow food and eat well in space.
NASA's PR machine is a big fan of using science fiction tie-ins to excite the public. Sometimes, the results are straight-up cringeworthy, but in this case, it's a fun and interesting idea. The space agency is working hard to figure out how astronauts can use technology to produce their own food and eat a more diversified, less shrink-wrapped diet overall. These are all things we're going to need to do if we ever hope to send humans on a long-term deep space mission or build a sustainable colony on Mars.
Meanwhile, 3D printing is one of the key technologies our future space farmers will have at their disposal. The first 3D printer was sent to the International Space Station in 2014, and astronauts have already used it to print a range of plastic tools and containers. In the future, intrepid spacefarers may print everything from dishes and silverware to hydroponic veggie boxes to the bioreactors that will churn out their algae-based protein bars.
Unfortunately, the competition is only open to Americans. But if you've got a creative kid who's stoked about blasting off into the void, the Star Trek replicator challenge could be a fun activity for her to try on her own. Who knows — maybe one day, her Romulan ale decanter will help prevent an interstellar war.