Business Unusual

Humans will be returning to the moon, but how will they be fed?

The usual focus of stories about manned missions to Mars revolves around the means to get there and how to survive the harsh environment, but a significant focus by scientists and engineers is how to keep those traveling in space fed.

With NASA having secured the budget it needs to commission manned missions to the moon, the plans for space nutrition is worth exploring.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the best laboratory for how best to keep humans alive in space and what foods work.

The ISS stores many months worth of specially created and packed food that is both nutritionally balanced and easy to store and consume.

Watch how food is prepared on board the ISS

The reality though is that it requires a lot of sacrifices. The most significant one is fresh products such as fruit. Fresh fruit is sent in re-supply missions, but they are consumed first and do not last long after it arrives.

Even something as simple as salt and pepper needs to be be kept in a liquid form to prevent the issues of sprinkling something in zero gravity.

There have been supply issues to the ISS when a resupply ship has failed or a liftoff gets delayed, but the frequency and time it takes to get supplies to the ISS is a very different prospect to what would be needed even with an orbiting station around the moon and even more so with operations on the moon or on mars.

The challenges of distance and weight require us to create food in space, not shuttle it.

You can't simply use salt and pepper in zero gravity, the condiments need to be used in liquid form. Picture credit: NASA

Hydroponics

The common use of hydroponics today comes from the space program in the 80s looking at growing food without using heavy soil and dramatically reducing water use. Hydroponics achieves both; using no soil and about 1% of the water of plants grown in the ground.

It still it limited to certain foods that work well and would also be susceptible to a bacterial or fungal attack. Should a crop fail in space, the option to restart it would be very difficult.

A crop that is being tested as one of the first staples is the potato and there is currently an International Potato Center growing potatoes on Mars-like conditions to find the best variety for the missions.

A separate experiment underway is to explore 3D printing food so that nutrient sources can be recombined into something that looks more appealing to astronauts and can allow for a greater variety of food types created from a set of basic ingredients. Pizza was the first attempt.

Taking animals into space is a whole different ball game and they are unlikely to feature until a there is a manned moon base.

Fish are likely to be the first to join us for our travels and may even be part of the plant farming operation in a process known as aquaponics.

Astronaut Don Petit maintained a very entertain blog written from the point of view of the baby marrow plant he grew as part of his studies on the ISS in 2011.

While the blog was a way to public report on the experiments, there is a potential added benefit to having space travellers tend plants, it may work as a form of horticultural therapy that may be just what is needed on the expected seven-month voyage to Mars.

There are many problems still to address and overcome. The opportunity is not only in allowing us to survive off-world but to possibly solve challenges with current agricultural issues as a result.

The space program is full of everyday projects that grew from a specific problem in space. Water filters, smoke detectors, the computer mouse, cordless drills, ceiling insulation all come from solving problems associated with space travel.

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