Martian astronauts will need green thumbs, says NASA

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Astronauts on the way to Mars could munch on space-grown lettuce, strawberries and carrots, a NASA scienstist says.

Maya R Cooper, a senior research scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in the Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston, Texas, says that feeding astronauts could be one of the greatest challenges to the first manned mission to Mars.

Astronauts currently dine on prepackaged foods that are quick and easy to prepare - and which include everything from scrambled eggs to brownines.

Unfortunately, for flights on the space shuttles and the International Space Station, astronauts are currently allocated 3.8 pounds of food per day. The five-year round-trip mission to Mars would therefore mean almost 7,000 pounds of food per person.

"That's a clear impediment to a lot of mission scenarios. We need new approaches. Right now, we are looking at the possibility of implementing a bioregenerative system that would involve growing crops in space and possibly shipping some bulk commodities to a Mars habitat as well," says Cooper.

"This scenario involves much more food processing and meal preparation than the current food system developed for the space shuttles and the International Space Station."

Cooper told the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) that provisioning space vehicles and Martian surface bases should ideally take into account more than just weight and nutrition, and provide a varied, tasty menu.

The answer, she says, is for astronauts to grow some of their own food and engage in much more food preparation than their counterparts on the International Space Station.

The perfect food plants would have few inedible parts - no artichokes, then - would grow well with minimal tending, and wouldn't take up much room.

NASA's identified ten crops that fit the bill: lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs and cabbages.

Another possibility is to send food dumps off ahead to Mars. Unmanned spacecraft launched a year or two before the astronauts depart could establish stashes of food with long shelf-lives, ready and waiting for the crew.