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Why Colonizing Mars Depends on Making Food Taste Better in Space

You’re on a luxury cruise, sipping an ice-cold beer at one of the half-dozen bars scattered throughout the ship and winding down with friends before dinner. You booked a table for the second seating of the evening at the onboard steakhouse, which is rumored to be superb. You hope to meet the captain.

This cruise-ship scenario may seem mundane, but actually isn't -- because you're in space. And this isn't just any old space cruise; this one's taking you and hundreds of other well-heeled passengers on a six-month journey from a dying Earth to Mars, which you'll call home for the rest of your life.

Roll your eyes, but it's not entirely science fiction. Sure, a high-end space cruise to a colonized Mars is still decades, if not centuries, away. The soonest that NASA projects it’ll be ready to send its best-trained astronauts to the Red Planet is the 2030s, and even that timeline is ambitious, given the enormous engineering challenges involved with safely transporting people in a vehicle capable of traveling nearly 34 million miles away from Earth.

But fans of the possibilities of deep-space travel should be bullish, especially as NASA outlines concrete plans for its Journey to Mars, and space-tourism companies -- namely Elon Musk's Space X and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin -- publicly compete to be the first to send paying customers into space.

We're totally going to get there someday soon... if our brains don't betray us first.

comfort food in space
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There’s no telling exactly how a human brain might glitch out in deep space since no one’s been there yet, but something as simple as a prolonged disrupted sleep pattern could trigger a complete mental breakdown. There's also “Earth-out-of-view Phenomenon,” a term used to describe the human response to watching our Pale Blue Dot grow so small in the distance that it disappears -- a sight that could set off any number of disturbing behavioral responses, from suicidal thoughts to hallucinations or delusions. (To this day, no astronaut has ever lost complete visual contact with Earth.) More likely, good old-fashioned stir craziness would be the culprit.

The Orion spacecraft, which will take the first NASA crew to Mars, allots astronauts only 300 cubic feet of living space. This means that, for up to two years, the four-to-six people aboard will be eating, sleeping, working, and relieving themselves inside a room roughly the size of a large dumpster. They’ll be literally millions of miles away from the rest of humanity, with the threat of imminent disaster and violent death constantly looming -- no fun. That's why NASA provides its astronauts with the comforts of home. What better way to do that than with familiar food and drink?

A home-cooked meal could be the difference between sanity and hysteria in space.

According to retired US astronaut Clay Anderson -- who's done two separate stints on the International Space Station, totaling more than 150 days -- a home-cooked meal or another emotional crutch during a particularly vulnerable stretch could be the difference between sanity and hysteria in space. "During all those hours, all those days, with crewmates and activities going on around the clock," he said during a panel at SXSW this year, "I could have used a beer every once in awhile."

For a crew headed to Mars to be able to survive, Anderson suggested, they’d need to have access to a variety of food options. "You have to create, in my mind, that home environment, that planetary environment from Earth," he said. "[That sense of] how do I see my family, how do I have the food that has the smells that remind me of home?" In other words, anything but the aroma-less, flavorless meal-replacement granola bars engineered to deliver the necessary calories and nutrients in the smallest possible package that Anderson and other astronauts know all too well. 

comfort food in space
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It’s no secret that most “space food” is pretty nasty, that oddly delicious freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” you bought on field trips to the science museum notwithstanding. It’s undoubtedly come a long way since early astronauts were getting by on tubes of goo, but just one look at the space version of a cheeseburger -- essentially a flour tortilla smeared with Cheez Whiz and haphazardly arranged chunks of mystery meat -- is enough to ruin your appetite. Beyond having a years-long shelf life, the food that’s engineered on Earth and schlepped into space has to be incredibly light and compact so as not to dramatically interfere with the weight and spatial requirements for launch, hence the reason nearly every meal and beverage in space comes from a flat pouch.

Finding a way to bring enough food to last a crew literally years is a whole different beast than the average space jaunt, which is why NASA is currently developing a variety of nutrient-dense 700-calorie food bars with multi-year shelf lives for the first Mars mission. To their credit, researchers are also considering how a steady diet of dull food bars would affect morale. Yet, if the ultimate goal is to build a habitat on Mars (and keep people sane and comfortable en route), the goal must not be to develop better, more efficient ways to bring pre-prepared food with us, but to find ways to safely and easily cultivate fresh food and drink inside a spacecraft and, ultimately, on the surface of an alien planet. 

comfort food in space
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Growing food on Mars won't be that tough, right? According to Matt Damon's character Mark Watney in the The Martian, all you’ve got to do is fertilize some Martian soil with your own poop, wait a few weeks, and poof: potatoes! Thanks Hollywood, but it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that.

According to Dr. Ray Wheeler, a lead researcher for the Advanced Life Support Research team at NASA who’s spent much of his career exploring how to grow crops in deep-space, the best setup for growing fresh food on a spaceship (or elsewhere outside Earth’s atmosphere) is a hydroponic vertical farm -- essentially a mini-greenhouse decked out with a system of LED lights and tubes circulating nutrient-enriched water. While it's incredibly resource-efficient, it's also limiting in the types of vegetation you can easily grow (you better really like lettuce).

Where the hell would one get enough water to sustain crops for an entire colony?

Farming on the surface of Mars would require a protected greenhouse-like environment that optimizes Mars' limited sunlight (it only gets 43% of what we do on Earth). You’ll also be growing things there hydroponically, but that begs the question: Where the hell would one get enough water to sustain crops for an entire colony? In theory, we could just bring a bunch of H20 with us and perpetually recycle it, but tacking on heavy tanks of water to a ship for that kind of journey would be incredibly inefficient and remarkably expensive.

A couple of years ago, however, NASA confirmed evidence of “water flows” on the Martian surface; evidently, the planet's underground ice deposits hold as much water as Lake Superior. Wheeler’s team considers these discoveries a promising development, but acknowledges that the water will need to be heavily filtered in order to safely hydrate and nourish the plants we bring along. Depending on the eventual scale of the operation, it may be possible to graduate to growing things in actual Martian soil, but only if we figure out a system to remove a certain variety of salts it's known to contain that are highly toxic to humans.

While Wheeler’s team vetted the plant-growing system that astronauts utilized to successfully harvest lettuce on the International Space Station, which orbits relatively closely at 250 miles above Earth’s surface, it’s still unknown how the conditions of deep space might affect botanic life. To that end, these deep-space growing scenarios would only be tenable provided the intergalactic radiation hitting the spaceship and Mars’ surface doesn’t kill or mutate crops in ways that would make everyone sick.

comfort food in space
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

Though NASA is meal-planning Mars trips and investigating deep-space food solutions, it's understandably less focused on providing a Mars-bound crew with great food than it is with, well, getting them there in the first place. Its ever-slimming budget will soon be going to actually building the rockets, landers, and technology that will bring humans to the Red Planet. And even the future of the International Space Station -- where critical food and crop research is done -- is uncertain beyond 2024, when NASA plans to quit funding it and fully dedicate its resources to its Journey to Mars. Mostly made up of “proving ground” missions (orbiting the moon and an attempt to redirect an asteroid, among others), this project is meant to test the viability of a longer-duration mission while still remaining in relative proximity to Earth, where a crew could more easily be rescued should equipment or other issues arise. However, the defunding of the ISS may ultimately not lead to the demise of the quest for decent food in space: The government is banking on the commercial sector stepping in to finance the ISS going forward, and companies like Space X and Blue Origin will exploit the existing infrastructure to test their various vehicles and projects.

The hope is that once a handful of companies realize the value in being futurist pioneers, the opportunity will attract others -- including food and drink brands -- to develop better-tasting food that's equipped for space travel, thus pouring money into game-changing research. This proposal is looking more and more promising in light of the recent news that Jeff Bezos’ will be investing $1 billion into Blue Origin every year with the ultimate goal of making spaceflight inexpensive enough to unleash a new age of entrepreneurship outside Earth’s atmosphere.

The agency that’s been set up to facilitate the ISS transition -- the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) -- has already provided station access for a wide variety of academic and commercial research (think medical trials and hardware tests for the tech industry), and has signaled that it's interested in getting food and drink brands on board, too. In fact, it's recently partnered with Budweiser, which announced an ambitious plan to be the first beer on Mars during this year's SXSW. It’s not the first commercial food or drink brand that’s teamed up with a space organization to get its product up there (for instance, astronauts tested a Coca-Cola “Space Can” on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985, and Heinz products have long been a part of the standard “condiment kit” stocked by the ISS), but Budweiser’s seemingly unconventional partnership marks a first for a major food or drink brand in that the intent is to better understand how its product can be made in space.

This marks a first for a major food or drink brand: The intent is to better understand how its product can be made in space.

Obviously, brewing beer on Mars isn’t a high priority in the scheme of things, but the project embodies the opportunities and challenges involved in figuring out how we can integrate the creature comforts that astronaut Anderson considers supremely important on future missions. For one, it’s a major consumer brand -- one with an annual revenue of $15 billion -- indicating to other major consumer brands that investing in space food and drink research is worthwhile, despite Martian colonization seeming an intangible feat to most of us at this moment. As Val Toothman, Budweiser’s VP of Marketing Innovation put it: "When we colonize Mars as a human race, we know that people aren’t just going to be living the bare-bones existence. They’ll want to be able to come home, watch TV, and drink an ice-cold Bud at the end of the day.”

It’s also entirely plausible that Budweiser's in-space testing -- or any other big brand that partners with CASIS going forward -- leads to improvement of the product down here on Earth. Coca-Cola figured out how to better its consumer packaging by testing a special system for dispensing carbonated beverages in space. If sending the specific barley malt and yeast used in Budweiser’s recipe into space -- an experiment that's actively being planned -- helps the company develop more hearty or disease-resistant strains of the stuff to grow here, that would likely set off a trend where the Krafts, Campbell’s, and General Mills of the world start seeing concrete value in testing their products there, and, way down the line, developing “space” versions of their most popular items to be enjoyed by astronauts and interplanetary tourists alike.

Ensuring a food item or beverage tastes the same in space as it does on Earth actually poses quite a challenge because the body encounters something known as a “fluid shift” once it leaves the atmosphere and enters microgravity. This not only affects how one’s blood flows and causes things like face puffiness, it also messes with sinuses and changes how and what a person can taste. That can mean heightening flavors so they pop as they would on Earth. As Anderson explained, “Sometimes astronauts like to have very spicy food, like shrimp cocktail in red sauce. Or they add Tabasco or spicy things like horseradish to their food to make them more presentable to their palate.”

This means brands are tasked with figuring out how to make a Bud taste like a Bud or Campbell’s Tomato Soup taste like Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and not a diluted or entirely different version. 

These may seem like trivial issues to be considering when we're still in a place where public perception of colonizing a new planet seems outlandish, but why not start now when it's a bridge we'll have to cross eventually? These potential partnerships with the ISS will usher in the next phase in the long slog to get humans on Mars. As Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, our own government (the current White House aside), and many other thought leaders of futurism agree, we’re at the dawn of a new era, where the hot new entrepreneurial trend will be conducting the R&D for the technology necessary to make those jam-packed space cruises -- filled with men, women, and children sent to colonize our next planet -- feel like home.

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist who’s skeptical space jam could ever be as good as Space Jam.