Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Space Food Now


Mike R. of Lightning and Thunder asks: Let's say NASA reached the point of launching a spaceship to Mars, would you be willing to go on that voyage?
Yes, let's say that! I'll get my pitchfork, you bring torches and we'll chant toward Congress with spirited vigor! I dream that a Mars voyage will happen in my lifetime. Would I be willing to go? Not so much. I've had a taste of space adaptation during flight simulations, and while I know the sickness passes, I wouldn't volunteer.

That's just too long in a tin can without fresh lilies, rainfall, and green trees. It takes more stamina than I've got to be a pioneer. On a practical level, I'm simply not qualified to work in extreme environments (seriously, too chicken to even SCUBA dive) and would leave that to the professionals. Luckily, there never seems to be any shortage of people applying for the job of astronaut! I'm grateful for that, and I think history will continue to show them as the true heroes of our world.

International Buffet on the ISS
Diane D. of Holy Molasses It Snowed In Florida asks: Why [study] nutritional requirements? Don't they already know what sort of food carries well in space? I thought they would have to grow some of their own along the way too.

Yes, they know what food "carries well" in space, having taken thousands of different items to the moon or into orbit now. Food scientists invented many interesting ways to both preserve food for long periods and also package them so as to conserve space on traveling crafts.

Menus are designed to fulfill the nutritional requirements of crews in terms of days, weeks or months at a time on the ISS. Of course, the Space Station is quite close to Earth, and re-supply vehicles are comparatively easier to come by than they would be on a mission to Mars, which might last 2-3 years.

The goal: Create food that lasts longer than 12-24 months.
The problem: Would it still taste good and would anyone actually want to eat it?
The deal-breaker: Mike asked if I would ever go on a mission to Mars, and all I can think of is having to eat 18-month-old re-constituted roast beef on the way home.

STS Menu
One Week Menu For a Shuttle Crew Member
Multiply by 104 weeks minimum

Imagine having to plan and store thousands of meals (3 per day x 6 crew members = 6570 per year), where each must have a 3-year shelf-life, to be prepared with rudimentary cooking equipment in a galley smaller than the front seat of your car, millions of miles from Earth.

You nailed another major concern, which has been a factor in exploration diets since scurvy was problem on the galleons of the high seas: fresh foods!

NASA's Cosmic Cuisine Fact Sheet specifies crops identified for possible growth in transit on long missions: lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions, radishes, peppers, strawberries, various herbs. From my reading, I see other space programs working with rice, potatoes, and various types of beans.

Lack of soil means committing to hydroponics –- and I love that the Wikipedia entry for this features a NASA researchers at the very top.

Stay tuned... I postponed what-all I had planned for this weeks' posts and got my brain cooking on space food; I'm now pondering writing a more detailed essay on how we got from Tang (largely urban legend) and paste-tubes (not used since 1965!) to modern preparations. Not sure why these items are still so alive in the popular imagination, but we should give NASA food scientists some credit by dispelling the myths... because the story of Food In Space is an utterly fascinating one...


Amnon I. Govrin said...

I like the post, but I have 2 points:

1. People have already stayed on the ISS for 6 months or more, enduring the food and everything else that's entailed. This is still shorter than a trip to Mars with current propulsion technology, but it's a ballpark.

2. Many groups are working on propulsion technologies. If I compare this to the car industry, even though electric motors and other technologies (Helium, natural gas) exist, it is taking decades for them to become mainstream. New propulsion technologies are not at a stage where they can be operational for a trip to Mars (or the moon or LEO for that matter) but at some point they will be, and suddenly Mars will be much closer. To make another analogy, Europe was once weeks away from the U.S. (about 150 years ago) and now it is about 7 hours away.

I'm really looking forward for the day of the first experimental vehicle that will get to Mars in a few weeks if not faster.

It would be almost as big as the first warp drive test on Star Trek :-)

PillowNaut said...

1. True – in fact the world record for longest stay in space was 438 days on MIR by Valeri Polyakov. How he coped with space food for 14 months is anyone’s guess!! Supply ships replenished his supply however, consistently bringing new foods… that won’t be the case for Mars.

2. True again, but we’re also talking about a ROUND-trip, as well as quality time on the red planet for experiments and soil/rock collecting. Even with expected propulsion advances, it will be a long time before the physiological & food challenges are calculated in months instead of years.

One interesting article I read by Michele Perchonok (NASA Manager of Food Technology, KSC) suggested they may consider sending separate robotic crafts stocked with food and water.

Muscle Car Reviewer said...

(read with a thick Texan accent) So you're telling me if I volunteer for the Mars mission, I'm not gonna be able to eat a juicy steak for 2 years!

I have yet another question. What is the ultimate goal of sending people to Mars? Now correct me if I'm wrong but I'm guessing that as far as collecting data, a robot can do almost everything a woman (or a man) can do, right? and for a lot less money and not to mention the potential danger.

Is it only a milestone? In effect saying, we send people to Mars because we can?

Muscle Car Reviewer said...

By the way, thank you for the link back to my blog. And my last name starts with an R. not an A.


PillowNaut said...

LOL, are you mocking my Texanity? ;) Ah well, I don't mind (but mostly because I'm actually a transplanted San Franciscan who has no thick Texan accent).

As for the Mars question, I suspect there are as many answers to that as there are people who hope to get there... I'll have a bash at that question next week :)

PillowNaut said...

And btw, typo fixed! :)