NASA wants to engineer foods that aren't space oddities
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has orders to put humans on Mars by 2033, and other organizations private and public have their sights on the same goal. Many challenges stand in the way of putting people on another planet, but one thing is certain: astronauts will need to eat something. Aside from sustenance, the right diet can keep these space explorers healthy in the harsh environment of space, and meals are an important social element for people on a long journey.
Grace Douglas, who's in charge of food for NASA astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), laid out the challenges of feeding Mars-bound travelers at a symposium on Tuesday in the Agriculture and Food Chemistry Division.
Space food has to last for years outside of a fridge—likely three years for a round trip to Mars—and it must be edible without cooking. Just as important: astronauts "need to want to eat this food," she said. While astronaut meals have come a long way from the tubes of paste and freeze-dried food cubes that flew on early NASA missions like Gemini and Mercury, spacefarers will still be eating mostly sealed, prepared meals similar to the Meal, Ready-to-Eat the US military uses. But some of the examples in final production that Douglas described don't sound half bad: Indian fish curry, crab bisque, and pickled beets.
NASA also expects astronauts to grow some of their own food. But don't expect poo potatoes à la The Martian. Think lettuce, which astronauts already have tried growing on the ISS. And 3-D printing food on a spacecraft might be a way to customize meals to individual astronauts' preferences or dietary needs.
Douglas is also working with Ann H. Barret of the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center to study how vitamins in packaged food degrade over time. Her group made big batches of blueberry energy bars and a powdered hazelnut chocolate drink and stored them at room temperature. Over the past four years, the products have retained enough vitamins A, B1, B9, C, and E to still be nutritious. And testers reported they still taste okay. —SAM LEMONICK
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