Building an out-of-this-world menu for Mars
August 3rd, 2012
04:30 PM ET
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As the rover Curiosity makes its journey to Mars, food scientists on Earth are exploring whether astronauts with a green thumb will be the key to feeding at least a six-person crew on a future mission to the Red Planet.

"The big challenge is having a food system that is going to work for that long-duration mission," says Michele Perchonok, NASA's Advanced Food Technology Project Scientist.

A “Martian greenhouse” is one of the food systems being considered for a manned mission to Mars, which isn't scheduled until the 2030s.

It takes six months just to get to Mars and the team in charge of food, including Perchonok, is responsible for feeding the crew every day for two and a half years.

“If we didn't go with the plant-based bioregenerative food system, and all we did was provide packaged food for a 1,000-day mission for a crew of six, it’s about 20,000 pounds of food plus packaging," she says.

To complicate matters, all prepackaged food going to Mars must have a shelf life of at least five years. Perchonok says while prepackaged items are likely to be pre-positioned on Mars by an unmanned cargo capsule, it will not be enough food to last the duration of the mission.

"You need to grow it, and that’s part of the reason we have some of the experiments that we do on the [International Space] Station,” says astronaut Cady Coleman, whose most recent mission included a six-month stay on the ISS.

Such experiments include growing plants in a water and mineral solution, as would be done in a Martian greenhouse.

Perchonok says they have been able to grow some plants on the Space Station but "not in the quantities that do anything more than, 'Oh look, I can have a piece of lettuce today.'”

Since a piece of lettuce won’t feed a crew of six, growing a large quantity of food is one of the many culinary challenges.

Food scientists recognize that their job is not just important for the space travelers’ physical health but also their mental health.

“Certainly psychologically to see bright fresh colors of fruits and vegetables and crunchy textures is going to be helpful,” says Perchonok.

perchonok

As scientists continue their work on growing tomatoes, bell peppers and onions in a Martian garden, they are no longer burdened with one very important part of the Mars food puzzle: Chocolate. There is something about being in space that gives people, like Coleman, a sweet tooth.

"People that I knew didn’t eat sweets almost at all down on the ground would be eying the chocolate, when it came up in those care packages, with real intent," she says.

Perchonok didn’t need to go to space to appreciate the importance of having chocolate on a Martian menu.

“I don't know about anyone else, but I couldn't go without chocolate for two and a half years,” says Perchonok.

"We did do a shelf life study, and cocoa powder lasted for five years. So, we know we can at least provide them with cocoa powder to make chocolate," she says.

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Filed under: Gardening • Make • Travel


soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Used Cisco

    We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site provided us with helpful info to paintings on. You've done a formidable activity and our whole group might be grateful to you.

    November 21, 2012 at 2:44 am | Reply
  2. Christo

    What about thier morning coffee? I visited the BioSphere outside Tuscon and they said the rate at which the plants grew allowed them to have only one cup of coffee a month.

    August 8, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
  3. Robert Harvey-Kinsey

    I do not get why this is such a problem, the issue with getting people to Mars is time vs supplies. I would solve both problems using the same method. Use a rail gun placed in Earth or lunar orbit to launch at high velocity supply packets to the manned vessel at it travels toward Mars. The manned vessel could use a high strength capture net to grab these packets and at the same time acquire their momentum. This would mean each time a supply packet arrived the vessel would travel faster. The same method can be used to slow them down and return them by shooting these packets into slingshot orbits around the outer planets or using another supply vessel sent to Mars earlier. Keep in mind with supplies they may be in space for decades and still be usable as they do not need air, water, or sanitation.

    August 7, 2012 at 1:41 am | Reply
  4. Ken

    I guess there aren't planning on sending any additional supply craft to Mars...lol...

    August 6, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  5. Beef Eater

    Where's the beef?

    August 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  6. Mr Comment

    20,000 lbs of food over 1,000 days for 6 people makes an average of 3.33 lbs per person per day. Do we really eat that much?

    August 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
    • Juls1314

      Yep. 1 serving of protein is 3 ounces. You should have 2-3 servings a day. So 9 ounces a day.
      1 serving of fruit is (1 banana) abt 4 ounces. You should have 2-4 servings a day. So 12 ounces a day.
      1 serving of veggies is (1/2 cup broccoli) 2 ounces. You should have 4-5 servings a day. So 10 ounces a day.
      1 serving bread/rice/pasta is 2 ounces. You should have 6-11 servings a day. So 10 ounces a day.
      1 serving of milk(8 ounces)/cheese is 1 ounce). You should have 2-3 servings. So, 2-3 ounces of cheese or 24 ounces of milk.

      Add it all up – 4.25 pounds if you eat the high end of the recommendations. That does not include snacks or water.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  7. TomZ

    TANSTAAFL
    The article glosses over the source of the "mineral solution". Water is mostly recycled, but unless the "minerals" are also recovered from waste products how much mass is actually saved?

    August 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • T. A. Martin

      Minerals can be produced using the Martian regolith (soil-like surface material) and recovered from the bio waste of plants and animals (aka humans)... The only thing missing on Mars is the complex organic molecules that plants produce.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
      • Scott

        And even the complex organics might end up being there, but it's probably not a good idea to bet on it ;)

        August 7, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
  8. Oscar Pitchfork

    There won't ever BE a Martian garden, you utter and unthinking morons! There's no atmosphere, and what little there is is poisonous! The gravity is only 1/3 of Earth's and there's so little sunlight that the average temperature is that of dry ice (-120 F.) The only food there will EVER BE ON MARS will be brought by idiots who will die there, and heated by the nuclear reactors they will have to bring to generate the heat required to eat it. NO ONE will ever conquer Mars.

    August 4, 2012 at 2:37 am | Reply
    • Marlin

      Wow... You should work for Nasa. You obviously know so much more. Though, perhaps with your anger issues, the Post Office might be a better choice.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:27 am | Reply
    • kkrogman

      Not the shiniest penny in the fountain, are you. What part of "Greenhouse" didn't you get?

      August 4, 2012 at 3:27 am | Reply
    • Oscar's Mommy

      I have told Oscar many times that he is not allowed to use the computer without adult supervision. He will eventually grow up to be knuckle dragging mouth breather, but until then, we will not be able to use the computer anymore.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:57 am | Reply
    • geo

      Quite true! There is absolutely no need for manned missions to Mars. The current moronic rover mission is a repeat just to pad the NASA budget.

      August 4, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • Oscar's Daddy

      Can we send Oscar? I'm sure he'd appreciate a one way trip to the Red Planet...

      August 5, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Reply
    • hecep

      I fully understand OP's and geo's cynicism. I knew something was up when I saw that Mars bars were not included in the menu. Criminal!

      August 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • Exectans

      Wow. I'm thinking your glass is half empty, your bed is circular, (necessitating ALWAYS getting out of the wrong side) the hat on your head is too tight, and small children run in horror at the sound of your voice. C'mon, really?

      August 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
    • John

      Ever heard of a GREENHOUSE moron!!!!

      August 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
    • T. A. Martin

      Poisonous to animals. The Martian atmosphere is almost pure carbon dioxide, which plants survive in quite well.

      The atmospheric pressure is very minute compared to Earth (101 kPa vs. 600 Pa) but a enclosed greenhouse structure can overcome that issue, and would allow solar energy (about half of the level of Earth) to be captured and concentrated. The low atmospheric pressure is a major reason why the surface temperature ranges from -120F to 68F... I think I'd start the colonies in the 60 degree equatorial region, thank you very much.

      Well... At least you got the gravity right, that's something, I suppose.

      The obstacles are many, but people have grown food in savanne and tundra regions of Earth – I believe, given the right basic materials, something can be done on Mars.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
      • T. A. Martin

        Eh. Poor text wrapping.

        Temperature range on Martian surface: -120F – 68F.

        Oscar – Wikipedia is your freind... So is English. Learn to research and read. You *can* do it.

        August 6, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  9. alex9836

    ..."but I couldn't go without chocolate for two and half years." Id much rather NASA send a hot chick with me so that I can have sex than packaging chocolate for me to eat.

    August 4, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • MMR

      But how would she feel about that?

      August 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
      • Misogynistt Alertt

        Apparently that's not something that would occur to alex

        August 6, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply

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