(AP)—Through a labyrinth of hallways deep inside a 1950s-era building
that has housed research that dates back to the origins of U.S. space
travel, a group of scientists in white coats is stirring, mixing,
measuring, brushing and, most important, tasting the end result of their
Their mission: Build a menu for a planned journey to Mars in the 2030s.
menu must sustain a group of six to eight astronauts, keep them healthy
and happy and also offer a broad array of food. That’s no simple feat
considering it will likely take six months to get to the Red Planet,
astronauts will have to stay there 18 months and then it will take
another six months to return to Earth. Imagine having to shop for a
family’s three-year supply of groceries all at once and having enough
meals planned in advance for that length of time.
is different just because it’s so far away,” said Maya Cooper, senior
research scientist with Lockheed Martin who is leading the efforts to
build the menu. “We don’t have the option to send a vehicle every six
months and send more food as we do for International Space Station.”
who travel to the space station have a wide variety of food available
to them, some 100 or so different options, in fact. But it is all
pre-prepared and freeze-dried with a shelf life of at least two years.
And while astronauts make up a panel that tastes the food and gives it a
final OK on Earth before it blasts off, the lack of gravity means
smell—and taste—is impaired. So the food is bland.
Mars though, there is a little gravity, allowing NASA to consider
significant changes to the current space menu. That’s where Cooper’s
team comes in. Travel to Mars opens the possibility that astronauts can
do things like chop vegetables and do a little cooking of their own.
Even though pressure levels are different than on Earth, scientists
think it will be possible to boil water with a pressure cooker too.
option Cooper and her staff are considering is having the astronauts
care for a “Martian greenhouse.” They would have a variety of fruits and
vegetables—from carrots to bell peppers—in a hydroponic solution,
meaning they would be planted in mineral-laced water instead of soil.
The astronauts would care for their garden and then use those
ingredients, combined with others, such as nuts and spices brought from
Earth, to prepare their meals.
menu is favorable because it allows the astronauts to actually have
live plants that are growing, you have optimum nutrient delivery with
fresh fruits and vegetables, and it actually allows them to have freedom
of choice when they’re actually cooking the menus because the food
isn’t already pre-prepared into a particular recipe,” Cooper said.
top priority is to ensure that the astronauts get the proper amount of
nutrients, calories and minerals to maintain their physical health and
performance for the life of the mission, Cooper said.
menu must also ensure the psychological health of the astronauts,
Cooper explained, noting studies have shown that eating certain
foods—such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes or turkey on
Thanksgiving—improve people’s mood and give them satisfaction. That
“link to home” will be key to astronauts on the Mars mission, and there
are currently two academic studies looking further into the connection
between mood and food. Lacking certain vitamins or minerals can also
harm the brain, she said.
Cooper’s team of three has come up with about 100 recipes, all
vegetarian because the astronauts will not have dairy or meat products
available. It isn’t possible to preserve those products long enough to
take to Mars—and bringing a cow on the mission is not an option, Cooper
ensure the vegetarian diet packs the right amount of protein, the
researchers are designing a variety of dishes that include tofu and
nuts, including a Thai pizza that has no cheese but is covered with
carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, scallions, peanuts and a homemade sauce
that has a spicy kick.
keep this menu going, and get the most out of any research about food
sustainability on Mars, Cooper says it’s possible NASA will choose to
have one astronaut solely dedicated to preparing the food—the Emeril of
the Mars mission.
since it remains unclear how much time mission planners will want to
spend on food preparation, Cooper is also building an alternate
pre-packaged menu, similar to how things are done for crews that do
six-month stints on the International Space Station. For this option,
though, the food will need to have a five-year shelf life compared with
the two years available now. NASA, the Department of Defense and a
variety of other agencies are researching ways to make that possible,
The ideal, though, would be to combine the two options.
“So they would have some fresh crop and some food that we would send from Earth,” Cooper said.
of the biggest obstacles, at the moment, may be the budgetary
constraints. President Barack Obama’s budget proposal in February
canceled a joint US-European robotic mission to Mars in 2016, and the
rest of NASA’s budget has also been chopped.
the moment, Michele Perchonok, advanced food technology project
scientist at NASA, said about $1 million on average is spent annually on
researching and building the Mars menu. NASA’s overall budget in 2012
is more than $17 billion. She is hopeful that as the mission gets
closer—about 10 to 15 years before launch—that the budget will grow,
allowing for more in-depth, conclusive research.
mission is important: It will give scientists the chance for unique
research on everything from looking for other life forms and for the
origin of life on Earth to the effects of partial gravity on bone loss.
It also will let food scientists examine the question of sustainability.
“How do we sustain the crew, 100% recycling of everything for
that two and a half years?” Perchonok said.
But first things first: None of this will happen without food.
Source: The Associated Press