"Mars is different just because it's so far away," said Maya Cooper, a 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 the 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 give 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.
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.
The menu must also ensure the psychological health of the astronauts, Cooper explained, noting studies have shown that eating certain foods — such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes or turkey on Thanksgiving — improve people's mood and give them satisfaction. That "link to home" will be key to astronauts on the Mars mission, and there are currently two academic studies looking further into the connection between mood and food. Lacking certain vitamins or minerals can also harm the brain, she said.
One of the biggest obstacles, at the moment, may be the budgetary constraints. President Barack Obama's budget proposal in February canceled a joint US-European robotic mission to Mars in 2016, and the rest of NASA's budget has also been chopped."
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