to Mars requires
new age nibbles
By Alexandra Witze
Even an Iron Chef couldn’t mas- ter what a food-centric cadre of NASA scientists do every day: Devise tasty, healthy meals for
astronauts to take into low-Earth orbit
and beyond — perhaps even to Mars.
Feeding people in space is harder
than it sounds. Meals have to contain
enough nutrients to keep the human
body functioning in near-zero gravity.
Slicing, dicing and stir-frying are impossible because ingredients float around.
And now that NASA has set its sights on
manned trips to Mars, packaged food has
to last longer than ever to keep dinner
from spoiling (SN Online: 7/26/10).
Fortunately, new research reveals how
to make long-lasting space chow both
possible and palatable. Plant scientists
are testing new methods to farm crops
in orbit, so that astronauts could snack
on space-grown salad. Engineers are
inventing new ways to package food to
keep it fresh for up to five years.
Soon, NASA hopes to have a menu plan
that would put Bobby Flay to shame.
Space food was born in August 1961,
when cosmonaut Gherman Titov nibbled
a few crackers while orbiting Earth. Seven
months later U.S. astronaut John Glenn
sucked applesauce from an aluminum
tube on his way around the planet, even
though NASA had no idea what it would
do to his body. Later, Mercury astronauts
flew with toothpastelike tubes and compressed cubes of nutrition.
“We learned that no one really wanted
to eat that,” says Maya Cooper, a food scientist at Lockheed Martin in Houston
who works with NASA’s Johnson Space
Center. “As the crew came back, so did
the meal-in-a-pill,” she said in August
in Denver at a meeting of the American
Astronauts aren’t supposed to diet, so
NASA began giving them tastier options.
Apollo flights got hot water and bowls
that could be used in space, opening up
the possibilities of soups and gravies. By
the 1970s, astronauts aboard the Skylab
space station had their own refrigerator
and freezer, which they could break into
for filet mignon, lobster and other treats
to reheat — the only time Americans in
space have had such a luxury. Shuttle
and later space station astronauts dined
on thermostabilized foods that didn’t
But elaborate, packaged meals weigh
a lot and create a lot of trash — not the
streamlined approach NASA wants for
long space voyages. Six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years,
the length of a Mars mission, adds up to
20 tons of prepared food that would need
to be launched, Cooper says.
So she and other scientists are exploring menus that combine packaged food
with vegetables grown in space, known