By: Vanessa Herrera
Mars is a desert (not dessert) with harsh conditions but plenty of opportunity for finding solutions to Earthly challenges.
As scientists, the unknown fascinates us and our curiosity moves us to search for answers. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been working on space food ever since the beginnings of manned space travel. Those beginnings came in the 1960s when the first humans were sent into space during our space race with the Soviet Union (Sperber and Stier 2010). Those missions laid the groundwork for what today is a food industry standard in quality: Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP).
HACCP came from a collaboration between NASA, the United States Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, and the Pillsbury Company to ensure the safety of food aboard space vehicles (Ross-Nazzal 2007; Sperber and Stier 2010). Without a medic onboard, there was no room for error when it came to protecting our astronauts against foodborne illnesses. Through the years, missions went from a few hours in space to 6 month stays aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Presently, NASA is preparing for another historic mission that may last anywhere from 2.5 to 3 years. The mission: send the first humans to Mars (Preston 2015, NASA 2015).
As space travel progressed, so did the evolution of space food. Food scientists at NASA and around the world worked diligently to evolve space food to better meet the astronauts’ needs. Advancements included creating a variety of menu options and enhancing food preservation methods. On the ISS, astronauts (and cosmonauts) now have a plethora of food options. These options include: fresh fruits and vegetables, bread products with an extended shelf life, foods in their natural form, rehydratable foods, freeze-dried and vacuum sealed beverages, irradiated meats, and thermostabilized or retort pouches (Cooper et al. 2011). Food scientists even pushed the boundaries of nature, and made it possible to successfully grow vegetation in space pouches.
However, in order to make it possible for humans to reach Mars, various complex challenges must now be overcome. The biggest challenges include shelf life extension, sufficient nutrient retention, and menu fatigue (Catauro and Perchonok 2012). One of the most important points to keep in mind is that food serves a larger purpose in space than simply providing nutrition. For astronauts, food provides a psychological connection back to Earth, and a sense of “home” that is desired after being isolated in space for so long (Cooper et al. 2011; Preston 2015). Other problems include logistics with the cost (physically) of bringing such a large amount of food to space. The amount of rocket fuel needed to propel the extra weight of the food alone is roughly estimated to cost billions of dollars (Wall 2012; Preston 2015).
Astronauts are more than simply pioneers of the universe; they are space scientists that need to eat and thrive in order to think critically, run experiments, and to pilot themselves home safely. To provide the critical nutrients for astronauts during a mission to Mars, foods will need to be fortified with nutrients-especially those prone to degrading over time. Likewise, a time-intensive journey to Mars will require space food to have extended shelf life and shelf stability as it pertains to both quality and safety of the food. Techniques like nonthermal processing may hold promise for developing foods that maintain their original quality without causing excessive damage to their nutrients.
As a safety person, one of my biggest troubles has been wrapping my mind around the toxicology of it all. In theory, we can fortify foods to high levels and calculate their final nutrient concentrations over time, but there exists so many variables to take into account and unknowns as to what could go wrong. What if we miscalculate? If the nutrients degrade too soon, are we putting our astronauts’ health in danger? If we over fortify or the nutrients don’t degrade quickly enough, can that be toxic? I am no space food expert, and have a very far way to go to provide answers to these sorts of questions. Thankfully, highly qualified, interdisciplinary teams of scientists, nutritionists, and other experts are hard at work to find the answers!
At the end of the day, we have many hurdles to overcome before humans can go to Mars. One thing is for certain, the answers we find in the process are sure to carry gravity, and will likely make a great impact on our lives here on Earth.
Interested in reading more about space food? Please let us know in the comments below.
Catauro PM, Perchonok MH. 2012. Assessment of the long-term stability of retort pouch foods to support extended duration spaceflight. J Food Sci 71(1):S29-39.
Cooper M, Douglas G, Perchonok M. 2011. Developing the NASA food system for long-duration missions. J Food Sci 76(2):R40-8.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 2015. NASA’s Journey to Mars. Web. https://www.nasa.gov/content/nasas-journey-to-mars. Accessed 18 October 2016.
Preston E. 2015. How NASA is solving the space food problem. Eater. Available from: http://www.eater.com/2015/9/17/9338665/space-food-nasa-astronauts-mars. Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
Ross-Nazzal J. Chapter 12- “From farm to fork”: How space food standards impacted the food industry and changed food safety standards. From: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 2007. Societal impact of spaceflight. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 219-36 p.
Sperber WH, Stier RF. 2010. Happy 50th birthday to HACCP: retrospective and prospective. FoodSafety Magazine. Available from: http://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/magazine-archive1/december-2009january-2010/happy-50th-birthday-to-haccp-retrospective-and-prospective/. Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
Wall M. 2012. Should NASA ditch manned missions to Mars? Space.com. Available from: http://www.space.com/16918-nasa-mars-human-spaceflight-goals.html. Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
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