HOUSTON — Through a labyrinth of hallways deep inside a 1950s-era building that has housed research that dates back to the origins of U.S. space travel, a group of scientists in white coats is stirring, mixing, measuring, brushing and, most important, tasting the end result of their cooking.
Their mission: Build a menu for a planned journey to Mars in the 2030s.
The menu must sustain a group of six to eight astronauts, keep them healthy and happy and also offer a broad array of food. That's no simple feat considering it will likely take six months to get to the Red Planet, astronauts will have to stay there 18 months and then it will take another six months to return to Earth. Imagine having to shop for a family's three-year supply of groceries all at once and having enough meals planned in advance for that length of time.
"Mars is different just because it's so far away," said Maya Cooper, senior research scientist with Lockheed Martin who is leading the efforts to build the menu. "We don't have the option to send a vehicle every six months and send more food as we do for International Space Station."
Astronauts who travel to the space station have a wide variety of food available to them, some 100 or so different options, in fact. But it is all pre-prepared and freeze-dried with a shelf life of at least two years. And while astronauts make up a panel that tastes the food and gives it a final OK on Earth before it blasts off, the lack of gravity means smell — and taste — is impaired. So the food is bland.
On Mars though, there is a little gravity, allowing NASA to consider significant changes to the current space menu. That's where Cooper's team comes in. Travel to Mars opens the possibility that astronauts can do things like chop vegetables and do a little cooking of their own. Even though pressure levels are different than on Earth, scientists think it will be possible to boil water with a pressure cooker, too.
One option Cooper and her staff are considering is having the astronauts care for a "Martian greenhouse." They would have a variety of fruits and vegetables — from carrots to bell peppers — in a hydroponic solution, meaning they would be planted in mineral-laced water instead of soil. The astronauts would care for their garden and then use those ingredients, combined with others, such as nuts and spices brought from Earth, to prepare their meals.
"That menu is favorable because it allows the astronauts to actually have live plants that are growing, you have optimum nutrient delivery with fresh fruits and vegetables, and it actually allows them to have freedom of choice when they're actually cooking the menus because the food isn't already pre-prepared into a particular recipe," Cooper said.
The top priority is to ensure that the astronauts get the proper amount of nutrients, calories and minerals to maintain their physical health and performance for the life of the mission, Cooper said.