As Mars Pays a Visit, NASA
Wonders What to Eat Up There
The Red Planet is upon us this week, as it’s closest to Earth in its 2-year orbit. While backyard astronomers or simply stargazers go into their usual frenzy of Internet commentary and great photos, astrophysicists continue researching ways for our first visit to a planet other than our own. It won’t be easy.
Practical considerations such as what to wear and how to live up there assume epic proportions, as do issues of safety and comfort. Nothing is as hard, though, as to figure out what astronauts will eat during the trip, and specially, once they’re there. NASA, for example, started a four-month program to develop a healthy diet fit for astronauts.
Open to anyone, the program will also address the fact that space travelers seem to crave spicy foods and sweet and sour things. The technology of growing and recycle food in space will have to be greatly improved too if we’re to survive in such inhospitable conditions.
These are but a few of the so far insurmountable obstacles that the estimated three-year trip presents to earthlings. We still don’t even have a suitable rocket to take us there, nor the sources of renewable fuel are sufficiently up to par to supply us with the energy necessary for the journey. And never mind getting into the psychological challenges such a gruesome enterprise would represent.
So, while this is not even Mars’s closest approach to Earth, being at a mere 63 million miles from us, it’s still fun to gaze at its fuzzy surface where the rovers Spirit and Opportunity wander about and the Phoenix lander now sits silently, and at the Gale Crater where the Curiosity rover will land in August.
For Mars lovers, the main show takes place during this week, but this is being so far one of the busiest months in recent memory for amateur and professional astronomers, with Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and even Comet Garradd all taking quick turns in the spotlight, being kind of chaperoned by the Moon.
CALLING TASTERS FOR MARS
NASA’s study, operated in part by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, aims at figuring out what foods astronauts won’t get sick of, the most practical ingredients to cook with in such anti-gourmet like environment, and the balance between the time it takes to prepare each meal versus the time that could be spent practicing hard science in space.
Participants will be confined to a Hawaiian lava flow, wear imitation spacesuits, eat astronaut food and cook using a limited array of ingredients during the experiment. In other words, if you think those high-tech white diving bells are too cumbersome to you, never dreamed of eating the plastic-looking stuff that passes for space food, and, of course, can’t cook, this may be not for you.
For everybody else, it’s not all fun and games either. Applicants must also hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological or physical sciences, mathematics or computer science, as testing food won’t be the only activity they’ll be carrying out.
At this point, though, there’s one perfect excuse for those who feel ambivalent about the whole idea: enrollment in the program is currently closed and, unless an unusual group of knuckle-heads got through the first screening and is now being slowly shed off, chances are you’ve already missed the chance to be a taster for Mars.
There’s still time, though, to apply to become an astronaut. We hear the benefits and life insurance premium are outstanding.
SPICY OF STELLAR LIFE
Some people have this view of astronauts as a boring bunch, nerds with athlete bodies, who couldn’t name a single rap song or recite a line from The Godfather by heart. Well, a funny thing happens when one travels to space, even if those things were all true: pilots and engineers and astrophysicists and chemistry PhDs start to crave spicy foods.
Researchers have some working theories on why is that. One holds that, with the lack of gravity, fluid is retained in the upper body, including the head, which gives the sensation of having a stuffing cold. Along with that, there’s also the fact that in space, one can’t smell anything, which, let’s face it, may be a blessing in disguise.
In any event, the craving for sweet and sour and hot kicking flavors may be a way for the body to compensate for the two conditions. While fluid retention in space is a sort of running joke among space buffs, as astronauts acquire a round face when outside Earth’s gravity, the loss of smell is nothing less than sorrowful, as anyone who’s ever had a cup of coffee without its aroma would know.
Just to be sure, NASA is also conducting a parallel experiment where volunteers will test the stuffy nose theory. They will spend several weeks in a bed with their heads in a position lower than their feet, to try to re-create the round-face, or what some call, the Charlie Brown effect.
We’re sure that Charles Schulz, a space buff himself who even sent Snoopy to the Moon before anybody else, would’ve appreciated the irony.
The idea of cultivating food before and during the trip to Mars, and also while we’re there, has been percolating within the scientific community since the early days of the space exploration. The Russians still have a little garden in their quarters at the International Space Station. Now their expertise may be crucial if we’re to succeed.
Just each leg of the trip, that would most likely start in one of the ‘launch windows’ that occur every 26 months or so, lasts over 200 days. Once we get there, we’re certainly not about to turn around and say goodbye either. And our spaceship will need to be lean and mean, with lots of power and the least possible amount of cargo to carry.
We already know that six astronauts eating 3,000 calories a day for three years, the expected length of such a mission, adds up to 20 tons of prepared food that would need to be packed onboard or on a separate flight, which multiplies the mission’s costs. The solution may be so-called homegrown food, cultivated hydroponically and aided by special lights and implements to keep their roots moist.
Radishes, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, mizuna greens and, why not? even fresh peppers could help generate oxygen as well as food, and even though they wouldn’t be the primary source of sustenance on long-term missions such as the one to Mars, they could be a necessary addition to the cycle of processed and packaged meals.
CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF
They would also greatly reduce another possible nightmare of traveling to a distant place: garbage. The 24 astronauts who were part of our only nine missions to the Moon, for instance, along with everything we sent before and after to crash on its surface, helped us leave almost 400 pounds of trash and debris on our natural satellite, destined to last over a thousand years, if not collected by future missions.
As the 500,000 objects circulating Earth’s orbit in these first 50 years of our space adventure have shown, once stuff is left behind, it’s many times as hard to retrieve it, and the potential hazards of a major collision is incalculable. So, with a trip to Mars, we may have another opportunity not to screw up this time by sparing our stellar neighborhood from becoming our private landfill.
With a different attitude, we may even contribute to this and other major issues right here on Earth, by developing new ways to recycle and reuse our dejects, organic and otherwise. As with the Space Shuttle program, a lot of these so-called small inventions, things that have to be created in order to achieve our bigger goals, may find their way into our daily lives and make them better.
This is also one of the greatest reasons to pursue such big challenges, as going to Mars and beyond: they force us to grow and innovate and create new technologies that relate and contribute to our survival as species in any conditions, our ability to make the most of the environment without destroying it, the choices we make about what we should eat and how, what kind of mindset we need to have and so forth.
Throughout this week and, as far as we know, for as long as we’ll be around, Mars will also be up there, challenging us with its beauty and mysteries, and toxic atmosphere and out of this world moons. It’ll be up to us to make the trip not so much to conquer it or perhaps thinking that one day we may need to evacuate our home planet and seek shelter in its red plains.
It’s much more because, in preparing to such a risky and complex journey, we’ll be finding all sorts of solutions along the way to the crucial issues affecting Earth during our lifetime. For any research geared toward finding ways to shield and protect life, here or beyond, is a research that will ultimately save and enrich our own.
So here’s to our first banquet on the surface of Mars.