While some at NASA are working out how they might send human beings to Mars, and whether they can afford it, another team is considering a matter of equal importance to would-be Red Planet denizens. How to feed them.
Maya Cooper, of the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, told the American Chemical Society meeting in Denver how her team is trying to work out the tricky balance of weight, taste and longevity for the next generation of space food. At the ‘Advanced Food Technology’ group, she said, the “ultimate goal is to provide a food system that supports all aspects of a Mars mission”.
The problem is that such a mission is envisaged to last up to 5 years. If astronauts on such a mission were fed on the current menu used by visitors to the International Space Station, they’d need to take 3,000 kilogrammes of food each.
Early experiments in space food involved the Mercury missions, which went up with carefully crafted “highly engineered” blocks that were nutritionally ideal but bore little resemblance to food. “We were doing some of our best scientific work,” says Cooper. “What we learned from the Mercury missions is nobody really wants to eat that.”
Too keep morale up and encourage people to actually eat their space-greens, later missions added freeze-drying, rehydrating and other preservation techniques to create a more appetising array of dishes. However, even this generation of space food may not last for a full five years. One of Cooper’s current projects is to see if they can improve the longevity of their packaged food. “After two years we really don’t have any good food to give you,” she says of the current situation.
An alternative to a giant larder sent along with the mission is to get the Mars-trippers to grow their own food. Using hydroponic systems, vegetables, and maybe tomatoes and legumes, could be grown, prepared and cooked by the astronauts. Although this system requires significantly less weight (a huge consideration on all space missions) it is also likely to eat up vast amounts of astronaut time, and it could be more prone to failures and food shortages.
Next year Cooper’s team will have finished a project comparing these two options and a third that combines them. It’s all a lot more advanced than the approach back when John Glenn was sent into space with a tube of apple sauce and told, as Cooper relates, to try and see if he could eat it.
Image: James Adamson eating a shrimp in space in 1989 / NASA Johnson Space Center