How would we feed astronauts on a mission to Mars?

The question of what scientists may ultimately discover on Mars is as nebulous as another that’s dogged space agencies for years: How to feed astronauts on a mission lasting several years.

Experts in this space race for food taste and ultra-convenience recently convened, appropriately, at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo, the world’s largest annual food science and ingredient conference.

With no interstellar fast food restaurants available, feeding astronauts during a journey to Mars raises nutritional, mechanical, and even psychological issues. Michele Perchonok, a food scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, raised a host of concerns. How does space radiation affect the nutrient composition of food? Will cooking create volatile conditions on board the spacecraft that could prove to be harmful? Will growing crops in recycled water affect their micronutrients?

“We could give the astronauts a pill that meets all their nutritional needs, but how psychologically pleasing would that be?” Perchonok said. “As they go off to space. . .and they know they’re not going to see [Earth] again for two-and-a-half years, highly acceptable food will be an extremely important and familiar element in an unfamiliar and hostile environment.”

Scientists here presented prototypes of some of the first attempts at food preparation equipment for long-duration space missions.

R. Paul Singh, food engineering professor at University of California at Davis, showed the prototype for a fruit and vegetable processing system for advanced life support. It’s designed to process tomatoes—slicing, dicing, crushing, and juicing them for soup, sauce, and paste

Sudhir K. Sastry, a professor of food engineering at Ohio State University, presented another prototype gadget for reheating and sterilization. The intriguing device is a food package equipped with electrodes that heat the packaged food. After an astronaut eats the food prepared in this container, the same package is used to sterilize bodily waste and store it until it can be jettisoned.

“You don’t want to open the hatch on a daily basis,” Sastry says. “The device will contain the waste so you can strategically open the hatch once in a while.”

In time, Pershonok expects NASA will send astronauts to an isolation facility in a place such as Antarctica and test the psychological impact of different food systems—basically, comparing and contrasting a dull diet against one that includes comfort food like fresh bread and pasta.

A mission to Mars is years off best, and Perchonok concedes that at this time there are many more questions than answers about feeding astronauts.

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