A Menu for the Mars Mission

hi-seas1Throughout the summer, six people participated in an experiment designed to test how people will deal with the physical and psychological strangeness of a manned space journey. Known as the “Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation” (HI-SEAS) study, the research took place on a desolate slope of an abandoned quarry in Hawaii, 8,000 feet above sea level.

Here, the volunteers lived in a two-story geodesic dome and put on a full space suit to venture outside. Their communications were limited, their shower time rationed, and each spent much of their time conducting individual “space” experiments. But most importantly, they were eating food fit for a Mars astronaut. This was the main purpose of the experiment, testing the menu that manned missions to Mars will have to offer.

hi-seas2For years now, scientists have been trying to find ways to make astronaut food more palatable. In space, the food is either dehydrated and requires water and heat to process, or is rendered in liquid form that has to be drunk right out of the package. But on Mars, where there would be gravity, astronauts could actually cook their own food from “shelf-stable” ingredients.

The goal of the HI-SEAS study, run by investigators at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University, has been to figure out the best strategies for nourishing Mars astronauts. On any long and isolated mission, especially on one as long as a hypothetical Mars mission. “menu fatigue” is a real danger. Astronauts need to consume a set amount of calories a day, otherwise they might lose body mass and bone density.

Lemon Dill Pasta Salad
Lemon Dill Pasta Salad

For the sake of testing the menu, the mission relied on a six-member crew of scientific-minded professionals who kept detailed logs of their food adventures. They filled out smell, taste, and appearance questionnaires for each meal; weighed each food item; tracked water consumption, cooking and cleanup time; and even monitored their sense of smell to see if food boredom had any physiological effects.

Another fun aspect was that they also tested crowdsourced recipes submitted by the public. Each recipe was limited to using the list of ingredients available. There was “Cajun Style Spam Jambalaya” and “Oatmeal Thickened Beef Stew” for dinner, “Blueberry Lemon Cornmeal Pancakes” for breakfast, and even a spicy veggie sushi as an appetizer.

"Dark Matter" cake
“Dark Matter” cake

Kate Greene, a science and technology journalist on the mission, had this to say about the menu:

I’ve enjoyed so many meals here, actually. A quinoa salad, breakfast tacos, borscht, beef tagine, and all the breads we make with our bread maker… We’ve also had cakes and puddings and pies, grilled cheese sandwiches and soups like seafood chowder.

With today’s technology, it could take as long as 300 days to even get there. But even with fully-stocked shelves, life on a Mars mission would still be a major challenge. In addition to fighting menu boredom, there was also the issue of regular boredom. Confined to their shelters and forced to wear space suits to go outside, the “astronauts” began to miss the everyday activities they used to take for granted.

hi-seas5As Greene indicated, she came to miss such things as walking about outside, biking, and swimming, and gained a new appreciation for her old life:

Something I realized about my day-to-day life on Earth is that it’s full of novelty. I see new people all the time and I go to different places. In the habitat, novelty has been a lot harder to come by, and it was subtle when I found it–a new recipe, a different way to arrange the furniture, or someone saying something completely out of character. When I noticed these slight changes, my joy and excitement was embarrassingly disproportionate.

On August 13th, Greene and her five colleagues emerged into the daylight without a spacesuit for the first time in months. After a media event and a debrief with the principal researchers on the NASA-funded project, they continued to sift through all of their research data, which ranged from scientific research, their food study, and even a record of their sleep cycles.

hi-seasmapAll of this information is likely to be very useful in coming years and decades. Back in August, on the one-year anniversary of the Curiosity Rover’s landing on Mars, NASA chief Charles Bolden said he believed that human footprints would follow in its path, and 2030 remains the projected date for putting those boots on the Red Planet.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, hi-seas.org

Food From Space: NASA’s 3D Pizza Printer

3DpizzaNASA has made some buzz with its announcement to print 3D pizza in space. And while this might sound like an awesome and appetizing use of the pioneering technology, it also has some pretty exciting implications for space exploration. For decades, astronauts have relied on freeze dried and thermostabilized food to meet their nutritional needs. But with 3D printing being considered, astronauts of the future could be using something akin to a replicator out of Star Trek.

Earlier this month, Quartz broke the news that NASA’s Systems & Materials Research Corporation received a $125,000 grant to spend six months building a prototype of a 3-D food printer- one that will be able to print out a tasty pizza before venturing on to other food items. According to his NASA proposal, the printer spits out starches, proteins, fats, texture, and structure, while the inkjet sprays on flavor, smell, and micronutrients.

3d-pizza_printerThe pizza printer is the brainchild of Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer at the Systems & Materials Research Corporation who has long worked on 3-D printing technologies. In an interview with Quartz, he explained the process:

It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor. Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.

As already mentioned, astronauts currently rely on food that is freeze dried prepackaged so that it can be eaten in microgravity. Astronauts get supplies when necessary from the International Space Station, where cargo vehicles transport their “fresh” food. But future astronauts who go to more distant places, like Mars, won’t be able to resupply. And that’s where the Advanced Food Project really comes into play.

pizzaWhen considering missions to Mars and farther into space, multiple issues need to be addressed. Grace Douglas, an Advanced Food Technology Project scientist at NASA, explains what these are and how 3D food can address them:

This is the only food that the crew members will have, so it needs to maintain its nutrition content for the length of the mission, and it has to be acceptable. If they don’t want to eat it, they won’t eat enough… 3-D food printers are looking at providing powdered forms of ingredients, and these would not be processed ahead.

That’s a good thing: minimally processed food has more nutrients, and it’s tastier. It also allows for even more options than what’s available today. And to address another key problem – printing in microgravity – NASA already has the option of using some of the more advanced prototypes.

anti-grav3d2Consider the Mataerial, a recently-developed 3D printer that is capable of printing in zero-gravity. NASA is exploring other processing technologies outside of the 3-D printing realm as well. High-pressure processing, which uses high pressures with a low-heat treatment to sterilize foods, is one option. Another is microwave sterilization–a process that uses high-heat treatments for a shorter period of time.

These latter technologies would make fresh foods accessible by ensuring that they are perfectly sterile, thus removing the need for food that needs to be dried or processed in advance. While all three technologies are still in the early phases of development, Douglas and others expect that they will off the ground and running by the time a manned mission to Mars is being planned.

And space is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to printing food. Here on Earth, it is a potential solution for ending world hunger. But that’s another, very interesting story. Stay tuned for it…

In the meantime, watch this video of a 3-D printer creating chocolate:

fastcoexist.com, qz.com