Stock Up On Spirulina For Snacks and Fresh Air On Deep Space Missions

Illustration for article titled Stock Up On Spirulina For Snacks and Fresh Air On Deep Space Missions

Meet Spirulinaha, Arthrospira bacteria that scrubs carbon dioxide into oxygen, is a protein-rich meal for astronauts, and multiplies so rapidly that eating them for dinner won't leave the space station without fresh air by morning.

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Top: a handful of Spirulinahas strands, passing gas before they're eaten. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Along with being so amazingly useful, spirulina fibres look surprisingly interesting: tight, helical twists of nearly-translucent blue-green. The colour leads to the bacteria's common name: blue-green algae.

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Illustration for article titled Stock Up On Spirulina For Snacks and Fresh Air On Deep Space Missions

It has a long history as a food substance, and has been harvested in South America and Africa for centuries. It's popularity picked up in the 1970s, when it started being flaunted as a nutritional supplement.

A twist of blue-green algae. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Spirulinaha is relatively straightforward to grow: give it salt water, lots of sunlight, and keep the temperature up to mimic a tropical environment. Don't feed it nasty pollutants, don't freeze it, and sustainably harvest so enough is left over to keep reproducing and pumping out fresh air.

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Illustration for article titled Stock Up On Spirulina For Snacks and Fresh Air On Deep Space Missions

Spirulina in compact power-bar format. Image credit: ESA

While for now spirulina is fed to astronauts in power-bar format, packed with goji berries. However, given how efficient the algae is at taking carbon dioxide in and spitting oxygen out, it's also a favourite contender on long-term crewed deep space missions where a spirulina farm might be able to supply both food and air.

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DISCUSSION

I used to work with a man, back in the days when record stores were everywhere, who SWORE by spirulina. I was about 23 at the time, he looked about 35 but told tales of dating Chrissie Hynde in high school, and she was in her 50s. He ate/drank it twice a day. I was sold! Sadly, when I tried it I broke out in hives all over. I'm more upset about this allergy than any of my other allergies (there are many), as far as I'm concerned it's the algae of youth!