CFAES students embark on a cosmic culinary quest

CFAES students embark on a cosmic culinary quest
Fuanyi Fobellah, a fourth-year senior majoring in food business management with a minor in business

By Tracy Turner

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fuanyi Fobellah, a fourth-year senior majoring in food business management with a minor in business at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), is about to take his passion for food to new heights — literally. 

As part of a select team of CFAES students, Fobellah is diving into the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge, a cosmic culinary quest that aims to revolutionize how astronauts are nourished during long-duration space missions.

Fobellah’s journey began on the wrestling mat in high school, where he grappled not only with opponents but also with questions about the quality and origins of the food he consumed. And his fascination with space exploration fueled dreams of a future where he could contribute to sustenance beyond our planet. 

Little did he know that his path would intersect with the cosmos, thanks to his decision to attend CFAES.

Fobellah, a native of Columbus, is part of a four-member CFAES student research team known as the “simunauts.” This group is testing novel food production technologies designed to withstand the rigors of space travel developed by four U.S. teams selected as finalists in the challenge. 

Their mission?

To run each technology or food system through a simulation of space travel, much like a crew of four embarking on a three-year, round-trip cosmic journey without the ability to resupply. But the simunauts’ work extends beyond the stars; it holds promise for addressing earthly challenges as well.

The simunauts are charged with testing food production technologies that:

  1. fill food gaps. The production solutions must ensure astronauts receive adequate nutrition throughout their mission.
  2. have an earthly impact. The technology developed should enhance food accessibility in urban centers and harsh environments here on Earth.
  3. are efficient. Maximizing food output with minimal inputs and waste is crucial.
  4. make good food. Create palatable, nutritious, and safe foods that require minimal processing time for crew members.

CFAES students and innovations were driving forces in the decision to have the college participate in this final phase of the Deep Space Challenge, said John Trzinski, who serves as the mission and payload systems manager for the George Washington Carver Science Park (GWCSP) Starlab terrestrial analog facility commercial space station team. Starlab is currently housed within the CFAES Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (FABE).

Sakura Sugiyama (middle) is a 2024 food science graduate from Athens, Ohio

“CFAES was chosen to help with the challenge because of their excellence in the field of novel food production, as well as the quality of our student researchers,” Trzinski said.

Angela Herblet, NASA lead challenge manager for the Deep Space Food Challenge, agrees.

“NASA is excited for Ohio State to host the final phase of the Deep Space Food Challenge,” Herblet said. 

Meet the other CFAES team members:

Sakura Sugiyama: From kitchen to cosmos

Sakura Sugiyama, a 2024 food science graduate from Athens, Ohio, brings her love for cooking and baking to the table. Her childhood fascination with turning ingredients into delectable dishes led her to CFAES. Now, she envisions a career in food industry research, and her simunaut experience will propel her toward that goal.

“The technology developed isn’t just for space,” Sugiyama explains. “It addresses issues like climate change and food insecurity right here on Earth.”

Charlie Frick, (far right) a fifth-year senior majoring in animal sciences from New Concord, Ohio

Charlie Frick: Farm roots and galactic dreams

Charlie Frick, a fifth-year senior majoring in animal sciences from New Concord, Ohio, grew up on a dairy farm. His expertise in animal sciences uniquely positions him to tackle the challenge of sustaining life beyond our planet. His eyes light up as he contemplates the intersection of agriculture and space exploration.

“Who would’ve thought my farm upbringing would lead to a chance at being part of space history?” Frick muses.

CFAES graduate student Mehr Un Nisa (right)

Mehr Un Nisa: Scholar with a taste for discovery

Hailing from Pakistan, CFAES graduate student Mehr Un Nisa’s curiosity about food science propelled her to become an Exchange Scholar. Her childhood wonder at the alchemy of ingredients transforming into meals now fuels her quest for cosmic cuisine. As she fine-tunes food technologies, she recognizes their potential impact back home.

“Solving space-related problems,” Nisa reflects, “may hold the key to solving Earth’s challenges too.”

The CFAES simunauts will conduct their research in a pilot plant at the Wilbur A. Gould Food Industries Center in the CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology.

The NASA research challenge will continue through August, with the winners announced by Aug. 16. The winning team will be awarded $750,000, and the two runner-up teams will receive $250,000 from NASA.

Even though they aren’t competing for the prize money, the CFAES team says they’ve already won because of the experience they’ll gain working with NASA. 

“Contributing to a NASA project is a unique experience that not many people have the opportunity to participate in,” Fobellah said. “Some people aren’t really familiar with what’s going on in CFAES, so I think it’ll open a lot of eyes and help people see all the cool and amazing work that we’re doing in this college.

“The CFAES motto of ‘we sustain life’ is perfect for this situation because the work that we’re doing in this challenge is not only helping to sustain life here on Earth, but hopefully on other planets. It’s just one step closer to us becoming a multiplanetary species.”