Developing Good Eats for Space Missions

ByABC News
December 17, 2004, 11:20 AM

Dec. 20, 2004 — -- Hungry? Chances are you can satisfy your craving pretty easily. But imagine you are encased in a small craft hurdling some 30 million miles from Earth and there's nothing good in the fridge -- actually, there's no fridge.

It's a scenario that NASA is working hard to avoid, especially as it looks toward a possible future manned mission to Mars. But recent events show how tricky supplying adequate and appealing food in space can be.

Since October, the two men posted at the International Space Station had been eating a hearty diet of about 3,000 calories a day and unknowingly burned through much of their food supply. While they have enough to last awhile (on a slightly reduced diet), the space program is now depending on a Dec. 25 delivery to avoid a possible food shortage.

The Progress resupply ship will hold 70 containers or 2.5 tons of food, as well as other supplies and some Christmas presents for the crew.

NASA officials have described the situation as tight, but not dire. Still, even the possibility of a food shortage on the ISS highlights the importance of the work by NASA's food scientists who are looking toward the day when astronauts will be so far from home, there will be no possibility of replenishing their pantry.

"Running into a situation where food is running out would be catastrophic on a mission to Mars," said Lisa Mauer, a food scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "It's a huge issue."

The goal of NASA's food scientists is two-pronged. One is to ensure that astronauts on board a spacecraft for long periods could have access to food that is safe and enjoyable to eat for five years -- with no refrigeration. The other is to develop systems to grow, harvest and process foods on the surface of the moon or other planets such as Mars.

Space food has already come a long way since the days of the Mercury program when astronauts had to force down freeze-dried powders and gel-like substances squeezed from aluminum tubes. Now space station residents select their own menus before blasting to space and use a specially equipped dining table to rehydrate, heat and eat their meals that range from chicken à la king to beef tips with mushrooms.