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GRCC students competing to have their meal served at the International Space Station

The team from Grand Rapids Community College, Victoria Uy and Thomas Brown, working in the kitchen to prepare their dish (photo courtesy GRCC Communications Department).

Grand Rapids Community College students are competing to feed astronauts at the International Space Station against 10 other teams selected from 52 schools nationwide.

Two students from the Secchia Institute for Culinary Arts, Thomas Brown and Victoria Uy, are representing GRCC in the NASA HUNCH Astronaut Culinary Challenge.  

The submissions are due April 15, the winners entree will then be processed by the space center’s food lab and sent to the International Space Station.

“This experience has been insane, for lack of a better word,” said Uy. “I have learned so much about myself, as a student and a teammate. I have found a new confidence within myself, because I was so nervous going into a culinary competition. I didn’t really have any intentions for competing in a culinary competition, but Dr. (Werner) Absenger is a great advisor and encouraged me to push my limits.”

Every year there is a different theme to the competition, with this year being ethnic dishes. In February, Brown and Uy won the regional preliminary with a dish of Indian butternut squash, mango chicken and brown rice.

The team decided to make a curry dish for the final round of judging, which was inspired by their instructors. Ease of preparation was also a contributing factor.

“One of the main reasons for using the curry recipe is that all of the ingredients we are using are already grown in space, or are easy to transport without harm to any spacecraft,” Uy said. “We had to figure out, ‘How can we change this recipe to suit the nutritional guidelines for space and still allow it to be tasty?’”

The team has to take into consideration that the meals have to be sent into space. Besides that, the dishes have to meet other requirements. Meals must be between 200 and 400 calories, with less than 250 milligrams of sodium, at least 3 grams of fiber, less than 12 grams of total fat, and less than 3 grams of saturated fat.

Absenger, the team’s coach, explained in a news release that the panel is judging entries on more than just taste alone.

“The entree must process well for flight and use in microgravity,” Absenger stated. “Students also had to prepare and present an ethnic dish that met very specific nutritional requirements in each serving. They had to research the different technology, engineering, and food-processing procedures.” 

The top 10 teams were planning on traveling to Johnson Space Center in Houston for the finale, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic those plans have been cancelled. Instead, the teams submitted a paper and video for judging.

“It would have been really nice to travel to Houston with the team, not just to see the amazing space center, but for the comradery,” Uy said. “I do feel that some of the competition experience has been taken away due to COVID, but I am also very grateful that NASA HUNCH didn’t completely postpone the competition. I am a huge NASA geek, so it would have been incredible to have been to the space center and competed alongside Tom and Dr. Absenger.”

Had the teams been able to travel to Houston, they would’ve prepared the dishes, now the NASA team will be preparing the submissions.

Brown also echoed Uy’s remarks, stating that it’s unfortunate that they weren’t able to travel to the Space Center. However, he does think the team made the best of the situation, virtually.

“I would have never imagined developing a recipe for NASA or understanding the impacts of microgravity on astronauts and food in space,” said Brown. “This has been one of the greatest experiences of my time at culinary school and I am so thankful for the opportunity from Dr. Werner Absenger to compete in this challenge alongside Victoria Uy.”

The contestants should be getting the results any day now. Uy said she’s constantly checking her phone for updates.

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