Audie Cornish talks to Maya Cooper, research scientist at Lockheed Martin, about leading the new food menu for NASA's planned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, to a food menu that's out of this world. Specifically, it's meant for Mars. That's right. NASA is already cooking up a menu for astronauts on a planned mission to the red planet in the 2030s and, lucky for those aboard the spaceship, the cuisine will include more than just Tang and freeze-dried ice cream.
Maya Cooper is a senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin. She told us that NASA's current space food doesn't last long enough.
MAYA COOPER: So it takes six months to get from Earth to Mars. They spend about a year and a half on the Martian surface and then they have six months to get back.
CORNISH: OK. Maya, 2030 feels really far away. Help us understand sort of what exactly you researchers are trying to do when you're figuring out what astronauts are going to eat on a trip like this.
COOPER: We are looking at three main menu options. One option that we've heard talked about a lot is a greenhouse option, where the crew will actually be able to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, have strawberries, have tomatoes, have lettuce.
CORNISH: And they'd grow it in what, Martian soil?
COOPER: No. They actually use a hydroponic system, so if you've ever been to Epcot and seen the ride where they grow the food sort of on shelf-like infrastructure and it has a nutrient solution, so the roots are actually based in a nutrient solution rather than soil.
CORNISH: So it's grown in a liquid instead of dirt?
COOPER: Absolutely. And that's done now here in the U.S. There are certain hydroponic systems that people will use for different rooftop growing, et cetera, so it's an established technology.
There's a second option to where we continue what we're doing now and we send prepackaged food to the Martian surface. The challenge with that is that that current food supply lasts about two years and we need the food to last five years in order to be still of good quality by the end of the mission.
The third option actually looks at combining both the greenhouse with the supply of prepackaged foods. It would allow us to add meats to a salad food system, vegetable, but it doesn't have the same risk of food scarcity that perhaps a complete greenhouse system would.
CORNISH: Hearing all this is making me wonder exactly what's on the menu. Give me a typical breakfast, lunch and dinner that you have in the works.
COOPER: So a typical breakfast menu for our greenhouse system would include pancakes. There's a tofu bacon recipe, where you have tofu and you're able to make a bacon substitute. Scrambled eggs are also on the menu. For lunch, they could potentially have a marinated tomato salad accompanied by, perhaps, a soup, sweet potato fries. And then, for dinner, tofu mushroom stroganoff accompanied by a spinach bread and a nice dessert, such as a spice caramel coffee cake or a ultimate lemon cake, et cetera.
CORNISH: Do you pay attention to sort of the emotional part of food, as well as the science of it? I mean, does it matter what you put on the menu?
COOPER: We absolutely do. You know, research has shown that mood and people can be directly linked, at times, to the type of food that they have with them and we think that this will be very important as people go to Mars. So, as we were looking at the food items on the menu, we were very conscious to choose foods that we would consider comfort foods at home. So there's a garlic mashed potatoes on the menu. There is a French fry item on the menu. There's a peanut butter cookie.
We didn't want everything on the menu to be so foreign that it would intensify any feelings of alienation that they may experience while they're on Mars.
CORNISH: Maya Cooper, thank you so much for talking to us.
COOPER: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure being here.
CORNISH: That's Maya Cooper. She's helping to create a new menu for NASA's planned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.