In a building in Texas, scientists in white coats are stirring, mixing, measuring, brushing and, most important, tasting the end result of their cooking.
Their mission: Build a menu for a manned voyage to Mars in the 2030s.
The menu must feed six to eight astronauts and keep them healthy and happy. That’s no simple feat considering it is likely to 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 2 1 / 2 -year supply of groceries all at once and having enough meals planned in advance for that length of time.
“Mars 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.
Astronauts 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 preprepared and freeze-dried with a shelf life of at least two years. The lack of gravity in space means smell — and taste — is impaired. So the food is bland.
On Mars, though, there is a little gravity, allowing NASA to consider significant changes to the current space menu. On Mars astronauts might be able to do things such as chop vegetables and cook a little on 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.
One option Cooper and her staff in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, 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.
The top priority is to make sure 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.
The menu must also make the astronauts happy, Cooper explained. Studies have shown that eating certain foods — such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes or turkey on Thanksgiving — improves people’s mood and gives them satisfaction. That “link to home” will be key for astronauts on a Mars mission.
Already, 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 jokes.