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Mars Space Mission Has Many Opportunities For Produce And Packaging Innovation

Newt Gingrich has proposed a moon base by 2020, but the real goal is getting to Mars. To a large extent, Newt Gingrich’s plans have been unfairly parodied by both his Republican competitors and the media. The truth is that Mr. Gingrich is on record as looking to make these things happen, not through a statist approach such as NASA, which would require large budgetary commitments, but through methods that involve competition and private sector risk-taking. As Mr. Gingrich has stated:

I am for a dramatic increase in our efforts to reach out into space, but I am for doing virtually all of it outside of NASA through prizes and tax incentives. NASA is an aging, unimaginative, bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance, which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit necessary to lead in space exploration.

However and whenever we are going to get to Mars, one thing is certain: Feeding the crew will be an enormous challenge. For now, at least, the organization doing most of the basic research that will be needed to develop a food system that can take humans to Mars, keep them there for an extended mission and then bring them home is NASA.

We’ve run pieces before about fresh produce and the space program, including, Space: The Final Frontier for Produce? Recently, we learned, though, that plans for Mars include the idea of growing food within the habitat that will be established on Mars and allowing astronauts to cook in a way they could not on other missions. We thought we would find out how NASA thinks this would all work. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Ieland Melvin and food

Crew eating in space

Images courtesy of NASA

Michele Perchonok
Ph.D, Advanced Food Technology Project Scientist
NASA/Johnson Space Center
Houston, Texas

Q: Could you describe the scope and challenges of developing a food program for the first manned mission to Mars?

Maya Cooper, senior research scientist at NASA’s Space Food Systems Laboratory, said of the many challenges, the sheer volume of shelf-stable food required for a Mars mission would be a clear impediment. Could you elaborate?

A: For a Mars mission, it takes six to eight months to get to Mars with the current propulsion system, and astronauts have to stay on the surface 18 months; a total of 2.5 years. We’re talking some 22,000 pounds of food per crew of six! While astronauts are in transit, they will need a packaged food system, maybe processed or produced differently than in the past. Right now, food shelf life is 18 months. With the shuttles, we brought up a few fresh produce items, but produce goes bad quickly, so the astronauts had to eat everything right away.

Q: Vickie Kloeris, Manager of the International Space Station Food System, shared fascinating insight with our readers about the role produce served in the diet of astronauts. [Space: The Final Frontier for Produce?] How will strategies differ for the Mars mission? 

A: What we need for the Mars mission is food that will remain shelf-stable for the whole mission length. Then we talk about pre-positioning two years ahead and additional preparation time that amounts to a five-year shelf life, which is a huge difference. Foods like this don’t exist to make crew members happy with the variety and nutritional needs. Likely, there will be no refrigerators or freezers on board, except maybe small refrigeration for leftovers or to cool down a drink, but not to handle massive amounts of food stored for long periods of time.

Q: What are the solutions you’re exploring? [Editor’s note: hear Dr. Perchonok animate evolutionary discoveries in NASA’s food system: A Day in the Life of A Food Scientist]

A: It’s easy to increase shelf life if we decrease temperature. If we can get the food down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it could increase shelf life in a meaningful way. We can’t put food outside because it’s really cold.

Q: How cold?

A: Down to minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit on the outside; variation is incredible if the sun is out. If you’ve ever seen an ultra, ultra cold product drop on the floor, it shatters, and the packaging to protect the food can’t handle those temperatures.

All this sets the stage for four scenarios to meet the challenge of increasing that shelf life: environment, packaging, processing, and formulation.

First, dealing with the environment, we need to decrease temperature and decrease oxygen. If you take out an old bottle of oil or peanuts, it’s oxidized and smells rancid. The second way is through packaging to protect product from oxygen and moisture.

Q: Hasn’t NASA already developed packaging that solves that problem?

A: We would like to see packaging material not contain foil. Our food in the pouch now is quad laminate; one layer is foil, and foil is a great barrier to oxygen and moisture. But on a longer mission, we want to get rid of trash, and incinerating foil produces ashes. When you incinerate a plastic bag, it goes away completely.

The third way is to change the processing to preserve the food. Right now, our canning process involves heat under pressure. We dry down the food so it doesn’t allow microorganisms to grow, and we irradiate our food. As you can imagine, if you were to overcook food it loses its texture and nutrients. This heat under pressure is really not the best for long-term quality and nutrition.

Microwave-sterilization and pressure-assisted thermal sterilization heat for a very short time and the hit with pressure breaks the cell walls of bacteria. However, you can’t microwave packages in foil. And unfortunately during high pressure, quad laminate starts peeling apart. We need a new package with high barrier properties for humidity and water that is not foil.

Fourth is formulation. Certain ingredients are more stable over time. An acidic ingredient prolongs shelf life, but it may not work if trying to develop a sweet product.

Ideally, we want to integrate these four components, environment, packaging, processing, and formulation, to get a long shelf life.

Q: Isn’t that just part of the challenge? What about other issues related to the sheer volume of food that will be necessary?

A: After tackling the packaged food part, NASA has other restraints. We need to maintain a low mass on foods. It costs money to transport high mass. We want the volume down. We want to keep crew time to a minimum, and the power should be at a minimum from heating up food to recycling water.

When astronauts go on their mission to Mars, the intent is 100 percent recovery of all life support needs — oxygen, water, power and air. If we use too much water or don’t recycle, that’s an issue.

Q: Could you tell us about the plan to grow crops?

A: While in transit, astronauts could be growing a few salad crops. But because volume will be limited, there won’t be enough produce to make a large salad every day for every person. We anticipate they’ll have a small salad once a week. We’ve flown a test salad machine.


On the surface of Mars, once they’re ready to settle and have habitat and places to grow, they could have controlled environment chambers monitoring temperature, humidity, and lighting, and probably grow hydroponically so they don’t have to bring up dirt, and can grow a range of crops.

Q: What crops are you channeling and why?

A: Our recommendation right now is they grow fresh fruits and vegetables and then bring in bulk wheat berries, peanuts, other dry beans and rice. Those take more time and more energy and have a lot more biomass of leaves and roots as compared to an item like spinach.

There is a separate group doing the crops. On the list, which keeps getting adjusted, are a variety of lettuces, cabbages, spinach, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and herbs. There are also strawberries, and mushrooms have been looked at.

Q: Have you explored Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms, a developing phenomenon in the produce industry? Will you be incorporating any of these technologies into foods to increase their nutritional value?

A: The group’s budget is really, really tiny now, so NASA is not doing any partnerships looking at how to enhance the nutrition, just working now at how to grow the plants.

Q: Do astronauts need additional nutritional supplements, especially with a mission of this duration and nature? If so, do you account for that in your product development and menu planning?

A: You mentioned Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms. Vitamin D is one supplement they require because they are not getting sunlight. We have certain nutritional requirements but are still trying to learn more in this area, and how to optimize those in the astronauts’ diets. It’s not our team that does that nutritional research, but they tell us and we deliver.

We have a food systems lab, and we do sensory panels. People around the Johnson Space Center provide input on food development.

Q: You mentioned irradiating foods. Are you looking into new food safety protocols? 

A: Food safety issues are being examined. For a pick-and-eat process, do the astronauts need to clean the produce beforehand?  It’s not outside with dirt and bugs and other stuff accumulating on the produce. But still, humans will be handling the food. We may need protocols on cleaning. Again, we don’t want problems using too much water, or bringing in chemicals that could be detrimental for recycling.

The other thing they may do is use the tomatoes for pasta sauce, turn the carrots into juice or strawberries into a dessert. So, there are many alternatives with the crops. The crew could mill wheat berries for bread, pasta or cakes. Soybeans could be made into texturized vegetable product or tofu. Growing crops opens a lot of different options to create nutritious, tasty foods.

Q: Have you examined cost/benefit scenarios of growing crops in space?

A: Weighing the pros and cons, the extra mass is large, getting all the equipment there, an oven, stove, juicer, food processor, etc., will probably bring a return on investment on the order of 10 years. Now we’re going to prepare and save on package food mass; however we’re going to use more water, power, and more crew time. We’re not making the decision of how much we move to a bioregenerative system growing plants. We give the alternatives.

Q: What timeframes are being forecast for takeoff? Is this more an exploratory period?

A: We’re probably going to Mars in 2025.

Q: That seems quite a long time from now. In the journalism and produce worlds, we’re used to tighter deadlines!

A: We’ve calculated at least 15 years by the time we’re ready.  

Q: Are there possibilities for interested produce executives to get involved? What input or types of products can produce companies develop to help NASA?

A: Our crop system team is not doing a lot of work now, but certainly our goal is to find varieties that have large production volume in a short amount of time, and trying to save on resources… if there was a way to reduce the biomass on leaves or grow produce that doesn’t need as much light and nutrients to thrive. On packaging, modified packaging doesn’t get us where we need to be. We are looking for targeted innovation.

Q: What is your role and how did you get involved in this exciting venture?

A: Maya Cooper is one of our senior scientists on the project. I’m the project scientist with the Advanced Food Technology Project, which is under the Human Resource Program. I really decide different tasks and directions we are going in. I have a food science background, and worked in the food industry 16 years. When a job opportunity opened up at NASA, I grabbed it. It’s the best job a food scientist can have.

Q: As your position takes you into new frontiers, what are some of the key factors you’ll be taking into account as you strategize the program moving forward?

A: Mars is a lot further away. We usually have resupply missions going up every three months or so. We won’t have any resupply with the Mars mission. Astronauts bring everything up with them, or it will already be there for them.

The time and distance away from earth is the biggest difference. In other missions, crews could come home in two or three days if there was an emergency. With the Mars mission, if the crew needs to communicate with NASA experts at the Johnson Space Center, there are 20-minute delays each way.

Beyond emergencies, if a crew member has a question on how to produce a food product, there will be a 40-minute delay. On the training side, there will be a lot more autonomy with the crew.  We know how humans survive in zero gravity, and the physical changes to bone and muscle loss. What we don’t know is how humans survive in impartial gravity. There are many things we have yet to learn.

The video embedded below provides a lot of additional detail. Interesting that one of the issues NASA learned from the Biosphere 2 project is that farming is very labor-intensive. The plan is to commit one person out of a six-person crew to work on food production.

The other issue is the trade-off on food security. The more food grown locally the less that has to be shipped from Earth – and the freight bill is substantial! So that is a big savings. But what if there is a crop failure?  In the US, if we have a crop failure, we pay a little extra freight and bring in food from somewhere else on the planet. If a Mars-based crew was really dependent on farming to eat, a crop failure would mean starvation before we could get food to the crew from Earth.

As missions get longer, providing appealing fresh foods becomes more important. The salad machine on the Space Station is more for motivation than nutrition; lots of efforts will be required to make the food supply sufficient, nutritious and delicious.

Of course, the lack of funding for these efforts to advance in space and the sense that government should be spending its money on urgent needs right here on Earth could both be dealt with if we allowed for proper incentives. We wrote  a piece for The Weekly Standard titled Jump-Starting the Space Program: The profit motive would do the trick, to explain how to make this work.

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