Filling the pantry for the first voyages to the Red Planet

August 29, 2011, American Chemical Society
Astronauts en route to Mars may not have it as easy as this space shuttle astronaut — they may have to grow their own food.Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

( -- A green thumb and a little flair as a gourmet chef may be among the key skills for the first men and women who travel to the Red Planet later this century, according to a scientist who reported here today on preparations for the first manned missions to Mars.

Speaking at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Maya R. Cooper said that provisioning the astronauts with food stands as one of the greatest challenges in scripting the first to Mars. ACS, the world largest scientific society, opened the meeting today at the Colorado Convention Center and downtown hotels. With more than 7,500 reports on new advances in science and some 9,500 scientists and others expected in attendance, it will be one of 2011's largest scientific gatherings.

Cooper explained that the challenges of provisioning vehicles and Martian surface bases begin with tangible factors, such weight and nutrition, and encompass psychological nuances, such as providing a varied, tasty menu that wards off boredom. The solutions envisioned now include requiring astronauts to grow some of their own food and engage in much more food preparation than their counterparts on the International Space Station.

The major challenge is to balance weight, food acceptability and resource utilization, Cooper explained. She is a senior research scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in the Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston, Texas. For flights on the space shuttles and the International Space Station, astronauts get 3.8 pounds of food per day. For a 5-year round-trip mission to Mars, that would mean almost 7,000 pounds of food per person.

"That's a clear impediment to a lot of mission scenarios," Cooper said. "We need new approaches. Right now, we are looking at the possibility of implementing a bioregenerative system that would involve growing crops in space and possibly shipping some bulk commodities to a Mars habitat as well. This scenario involves much more food processing and meal preparation than the current food system developed for the space shuttles and the International Space Station."

Bioregenerative systems involve growing plants that multi-task. They would supply food, of course. But just as plants do in natural environments on Earth, those growing in bioregenerative systems also would release oxygen for the astronauts to breathe, purify the air by removing the carbon dioxide that crews exhale and even purify water.

Ideally, these plants would have few inedible parts, would grow well with minimal tending and would not take up much room. Ten crops that fit those requirements have emerged as prime candidates for the Mars mission's kitchen garden. They are lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs and cabbages.

Cooper cited another option for these missions, the first of which could launch in the 2030s, according to some forecasts. Shipping bulk commodities to could involve unmanned spacecraft launched a year or two before the astronauts depart to establish stashes of food with long shelf-lives that the crew could use while exploring the .

Engaging astronauts in food production and preparation is the latest concept in a 50-year evolution of technology for filling astronauts' and cosmonauts' larders, Cooper noted. It began when Yuri Gagarin reportedly munched on paté and caviar during that first manned spaceflight in 1961.

Space food has come a long way since the days of freeze-dried food blocks and squeezing gooey foods out of toothpaste tubes that astronauts ate in the earliest days of space flight. By the late 1960s, astronauts for the first time could have hot food and eat their food with a spoon in a special bowl. Other utensils were introduced in the 1970s with Skylab — the U.S.' first space station. These astronauts could choose from 72 different foods, some of which were stored in an on-board refrigerator or freezer — a first for space cuisine. In recent years, space shuttle could drink a coffee with their scrambled eggs for breakfast, snack on chocolates or a brownie and choose from chicken al a King, mushroom soup or rice pilaf among other foods for lunch and dinner — just like on Earth. These prepackaged foods take only a few minutes and little effort to prepare.

"The NASA Advanced Food Technology project is currently working to address the issues of variety, weight, volume, nutrition and trash disposal through research and external academic and commercial collaborations," Cooper noted.

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3 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2011
Idk about growing the food en route in microgravity, still way too many kinks to work out there. Remember the Biosphere projects ? Imagine the same thing in space.
3 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2011
While having "lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs and cabbages" would probably be good for morale as reminders of home, you can't live entirely off those crops. Will they be supplementing with some light-weight protein, like spirulina or chlorella?

Or maybe they'll have pea protein powder or something-- with the exercising they'll have to do to combat microgravity's degenerative muscle effects, maybe it'd be ideal.
not rated yet Aug 29, 2011
You are going to need gravity. A Nautilus-x is a decent prototype but eventually, a true space habitat will have to be much larger, say a tourus about 1,000 feet in diameter, to create approximately 1 G without the disorienting effects of rotation.
4.5 / 5 (2) Aug 29, 2011
Wonder why potatoes are not included on the list?
5 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2011
@GDM - You don't NEED centrifugal gravity, but for a long term mission like that, it would come highly recommended.

That said, some types of plants can be much more productive in zero g. So the best way would to be pragmatic.

@isaac - Biosphere I guess worked as an experiment, but as a habitat it is basically retarded, and while we can draw lessons from it, we don't need to use it as an example of anything.

We don't need indefinite living conditions, and we don't need the entire life support system to come from a precariously balanced natural system.

Would work better if we do a fusion of machine and nature so we don't get a biosphere like problem where we don't have enough oxygen because the lettuce got sick because it was contaminated by the algae, because the duckweed roots grew too much and popped a seal.

@LDK - Good question. Is there a reason? If you had beans and potatoes, it would go a long way toward providing an astronaut's diet (Carbs and protien)

5 / 5 (1) Aug 29, 2011
I think the reason why potatoes and beans are not included is because they are related to nightshades and the plant portion is not edible? (Notwithstanding that tomatoes and peppers are also related)


and potatoes

are growable in space, no problem. I think their suggestions kind of miss basic dietary needs that can be addressed.

Also, how big would this setup need to be to replace a significant portion of the astronauts' diets? It would either have to be extremely small in order to fit in the room already available. If you wanted to devote a whole module to provide a significant portion of food, you would probably add more than 7000 pounds...
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 29, 2011
Might I suggest some foods that do not produce too much gas. I might sound funny, but farts in space are not funny. They are hydrogen sulfide entrained, especially foods rich in beans, cabbage, etc. Everything in a spacecraft must be recyclable. How do you recycle H2S?
not rated yet Aug 31, 2011
Might I suggest some foods that do not produce too much gas. I might sound funny, but farts in space are not funny. They are hydrogen sulfide entrained, especially foods rich in beans, cabbage, etc. Everything in a spacecraft must be recyclable. How do you recycle H2S?

genetically engineered beens that produce their own Bean-O

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