NASA Develops Vegan Menu for Future Mission to Mars

By Chelsea Whyte on July 20, 2012 12:02 AM EDT

vegan pizza
Vegan pizza may be on the menu for future travelers to Mars. (Photo: Creative Commons: Veganbaking.)

Space food isn't limited to Tang and dehydrated ice cream. NASA scientists are devising a new menu for a mission to Mars sometime 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, reports The Globe & Mail. And with a six month journey to and from the Red Planet, as well as an 18-month stint for work at the destination, scientists have a lot of recipe-testing to do.

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"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."

Cooper and a team of scientists are conducting experiments to condense foods with essential nutrients down to a small enough mass to be efficient for the trip. They are testing sushi and vegan pizza and they are also considering a 'Martian greenhouse' which could grow a hydroponic garden in a solution of water laced with minerals, instead of relying on soil. The astronauts could use the vegetables grown in the greenhouse to supplement their pre-packed 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, according to ABC News.

The team has made 100 recipes so far, which will be pre-prepared and freeze-dried, giving them a shelf life of at least two years. There can be no cheese in the Martian diet because dairy needs refrigeration, a luxury that won't be afforded the astronauts traveling to Mars. So the team has been mining vegan cookbooks for recipes they can adapt for space travel.

Astronauts make up a panel that tastes the food and gives it a final OK on Earth before it blasts off, reports The Christian Science Monitor. The lack of gravity in space means that both smell and taste are impaired, so the food is bland.

The length of the trip to Mars offers the possibility that astronauts can do things like chop vegetables and do a little cooking of their own. The team is working to adapt cooking instructions for low gravity. Even though pressure levels are different than on Earth, scientists think it will be possible to boil water with a pressure cooker.

The ability to cook their own meals and choose what they eat at the end of a long day of space travel could also boost morale for the astronauts.

Jerry Linenger, a retired astronaut who spent 132 days on the Russian Mir space station in 1997, said the monotony of eating the same thing day after day is difficult, according to The Daily Mail.

'You just wanted something different. I didn't care if it was something I wouldn't eat in a million years on Earth. If it was different, I would eat it,' Linenger said, recalling with a laugh how he would even drink up a Russian sour milk-like concoction for breakfast or drink up some borscht because it offered variety.

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