Once a thing of science fiction novels and Ray Bradbury theatre, the idea of humans on Mars is slowly becoming a reality as NASA envisages their mission to Mars taking off (see what we did there) in the 2030s. As an aside, Elon Musk plans to begin human colonisation of Mars in 2024, so it will be interesting to see who pips whom at the post, but back to NASA.
Robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than four decades and NASA’s plan for human exploration of the red planet begins on the Internal Space Station (ISS) in low-Earth orbit. It is here that astronauts are helping to shape technologies and systems that will forge the way for human missions into deep space – and one of the most essential aspects of that survival is food. Enter Vickie Kloeris, one of NASA’s top food scientists, whose main objective is to ensure astronauts have well-balanced, nutritious and enjoyable food to eat, both now while on the ISS and further down the line when Mars is in sight. Currently there are about 200 different kinds of food and drink on the menu on the ISS so there’s more than enough variety which is paramount to combat menu fatigue – a real phenomenon which sees people eating to survive rather than thrive, if they’re bored with the food.
So, how do you go about planning this kind of food system? Popular Science interviewed Kloeris and here are three Q&As extracted from the article:
1. What are some of the biggest challenges in designing food for a trip to Mars?
Vickie Kloeris: ‘For the initial trip to Mars, the food will almost all be pre-positioned, so that it's waiting for them when they arrive. If you consider it's a 6-month trip to Mars, that food is going to be 5 to 7 years old when they get there. The challenge is having enough variety of foods that will last for that length of time, and will be high enough quality that the astronauts won't quit eating.
The other challenge that we have is that the nutritional content of this food will decay over time. Even though our food packages are considered sterile, there are chemical reactions that take pace. The color is going to change, the texture is going to change, and the nutrition degrades over time. We need to know, after 5 to 7 years, how much nutrition is it really going to have left in it, and will there be certain nutrients that will be too scarce? To find out, we've taken some of our current products and we're doing shelf-life studies to see how the nutrients survive over time.’
2. Are there other concerns about feeding astronauts on Mars?
Vicki Kloeris: ‘Deep space radiation and its effects on food are kind of an unknown at this time, and one of the problems that we have is there's no good way to recreate that on Earth to test it.
A few years ago we did an experiment. We kept control sets of food and medicine on the ground, and sent equivalent items to the ISS, then brought them back and compared. Radiation in low Earth orbit on the ISS did not have a significant effect on the food's quality and nutrients. But that kind of radiation is quite different from when they totally leave Earth's atmosphere.
NASA is looking at having a small waypoint destination somewhere near the moon. We're looking at possibly sending food there, and possibly keeping it there for a while to see what effect deep space radiation might have on the food.’
3. Will Mars explorers grow their own food?
Vicki Kloeris: ‘One of the things that I definitely see happening would be them growing some pick-and-eat items in something like the Veggie machine. The volume of what they're going to be able to grow is going to be so small that it's probably not going to have a significant contribution to their nutrition, but it will probably have a huge psychological contribution. The idea of growing significant amounts of food on that first mission is probably just not going to happen. If we really make the commitment to colonize mars, to actually keep people there like on the ISS, then you're probably going to have some kind of module to grow plants continuously.’
Considering the challenges Kloeris and her team face, our daily challenge of ‘where shall we eat tonight’ or ‘what shall we cook for dinner this evening’ suddenly seems insignificant by comparison doesn’t it? So, let’s revel in the knowledge that we have easy access to the highest-quality wholesale meat, Halaal fish and wholesale frozen vegetables in the industry. For the best in quality, service and delivery, call N1 today – for now only servicing Earth.