Most of Michelle Perchonok’s colleagues at NASA are concerned with getting people to Mars. But foremost on Perchonok’s mind is a far more cardinal concern: what on Earth to feed them. Whatever it is, food for the Red Planet will need to be nutritious, resistant to solar radiation and still edible after up to five years in storage. Perchonok would like to build in a degree of scrumptiousness, too.
“The frontier of space food is trying to come up with a food system to support a Mars mission,” says Vickie Kloeris, the Johnson Space Center’s manager of Space Food Systems. What with a six-month journey to get out there and back, plus at least an 18-month stay on Mars, the shelf-life target for Mars food is five years. By comparison, chow on the International Space Station is past its prime after 18 months. “It’s our biggest challenge right now,” says Kloeris.
“We’re limited to the packaged food system in transit,” explains Perchonok, who heads up the Advanced Food Technology Project at the Johnson Space Center. Once installed on Mars, astronauts may supplement their foiled food packets with some hydroponic (or “bioregenerative”) veggies.
The mission to Mars could launch as early as 2024. That doesn’t leave too much time for testing a recipe’s five-year staying power. So Perchonok is using accelerated shelf-life tests to see which of 13 International Space Station menu items last the longest. She stores thermostabilized food packages at three different temperatures (40, 72 and 95 degrees F) in machines that resemble refrigerators. The warmer the temperature, the more accelerated its shelf-life test. Every four months or so she feeds some of the aged dishes to volunteer taste-testers recruited from the Johnson Space Center’s workforce.
The results? Rhubarb applesauce just passed the 24-month mark with flying colors. So far thermostabilized bread pudding, apricot cobbler and grilled pork chops are the only menu items known to age for five years and still taste good. Still, that doesn’t leave much room for day-to-day variety on the menu.
So the Advanced Food Technology Project is also accelerating the shelf lives of three bulk ingredients, which may give astronauts with culinary inclinations the chance to get creative. First is cornstarch for thickening Martian gravies and gumbos, followed by dried egg whites for baking (we’re thinking a nice meringue would be out of this world). And last but not least is cocoa because, as Perchonok concedes, “you wouldn’t want to be without chocolate for three years.”