NASA is working on a plan to feed astronauts during a journey to Mars

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NASA astronauts are eating well aboard the ISS this Thanksgiving.
Image: NASA

Putting humans on Mars is the next great pinnacle of spaceflight. Much like putting humans on the moon helped define a generation, the same will happen when boots make contact with the Red Planet. However, getting there is a far more complicated endeavor. Due to the distance between Earth and Mars, the journey will take around six or seven months to complete.

That’s a lot of food to think about. To help solve the problem, NASA is launching the Deep Space Food Challenge. It comes with a $500,000 prize for anyone that can help develop a food system to support astronauts on the journey to Mars.

Next-Gen Space Food

Compared to what the astronauts bound for Mars will endure, those currently living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are living in luxury. ISS astronauts are able to choose roughly 20 percent of their diet while the other 80 percent is comprised of a “shared, standard set of foods.”

Resupply shipments that arrive at the station on a regular basis bring small amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other items. They also supply the ISS with “space food” that can be stored for longer periods of time.

On the journey to Mars, there will be no resupply missions. That means astronauts will need to either bring all of their food with them or grow it on the way. Finding a balance between these two approaches will be key.

In a recent blog post, NASA outlined a series of core tenets that will definite its Mars mission food strategy. They include stability, palatability, nutrition, resource minimization, variety, reliability, and usability.

Obviously, stability and reliability are the most important factors since they are necessary to keep the crew alive. Palatability and nutrition follow closely behind, however, since keeping spirits high will be a major focus for the seven-month space trip.

Start Thinking

NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge aims to usher in a new era of space food. Along with the core tenets outlined above, the agency also emphasized the importance of new space-ready appliances. These will likely be necessary to support whatever food system is eventually put into place.

It will be interesting to see how the proposals tackle the issue of growing food on the way to Mars. NASA believes that this will be a necessary component of its deep space food strategy. However, it is also risky. If something goes wrong and the food stops growing, astronauts could be left in a dire position. So, some sort of backup plan will likely be necessary.

While the prospect of journeying to another planet is thrilling, NASA also notes that its Deep Space Food Challenge could also have local applications. It says, “Solutions from this challenge could enable new avenues for food production around the world, especially in extreme environments, resource-scarce regions, and in new places like urban areas and in locations where disasters disrupt critical infrastructure.”

Keep an eye on this competition as time goes on. Today’s ideas might just be the foundation of how future astronauts will fill their bellies on the way to Mars.

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