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Published: Tuesday, 7/31/2012

One small bite for man, one giant chomp ...


Imagine being an astronaut.

The excitement of blasting off. The wonders of weightlessness. The amazing views of Earth and the universe that few others have seen. The unparalleled thrill of exploring new worlds.

Now imagine the food.

Some of us are old enough to remember Tang, the powdered orange drink taken to outer space by the astronauts. Some of us are young enough to think it was fun to drink at the time. But even so, grown-up astronauts would probably tire of the peculiarly sharp taste if they had to drink it day after day after day for 2 1/2 years.

Sometime in the 2030s, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars. It's the next and most obvious frontier, but food might be a problem. It will take six months to get there and six months to get back; and once they're there they may as well stick around for at least another 18 months. If they run out of food or something goes bad or they want to pick up a quick six-pack of beer, heading off to the nearest Kroger would be extremely inconvenient.

So that is why a team of scientists is hard at work at the Advance Food Technology Project in Houston. According to a recent story by the Associated Press, the scientists are trying to create food that can be packed into a spaceship, brought to Mars, and kept there for a matter of years.

It's harder than it sounds. Astronauts have long joked about their meals in pill form and weird freeze-dried foods. The scientists (apparently they are with Lockheed Martin rather than NASA) are trying to provide them with food that is more like real food in the hopes that it will help them feel more connected to home. That connection will be vital to their psyches when they are so isolated for so long.

But there is more to contend with than mere volume and weight. The lack of gravity on the trip there and back, combined with the gravity on Mars that isn't as strong as it is here, will lead to considerable complications. Get this: A lack of gravity affects the senses of smell and taste, so the food will naturally seem bland. And it should be obvious why trying to chop foods in a weightless environment would be impossible, or at least foolish.

But the existence of gravity on Mars will make chopping possible, and water will also be able to be boiled, using a pressure cooker. So one possibility is to build a greenhouse on Mars with hydroponically grown plants to supplement the other dishes coming out of the Advanced Food Technology Project.

Even so, the astronauts will not be able to have meat or dairy products, which would spoil long before they even got near Mars. The scientists are working on foods that will stay edible for five years, so presumably Twinkies would be fine.

Already, the scientists have developed 100 recipes, including a Thai pizza (no cheese) that has carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, scallions, peanuts (for protein as well as flavor), and a spicy sauce.

That doesn't sound bad at all, until you look at the Web site for the Advanced Food Technology Project. Admittedly, government writers and scientists don't use language like the rest of us, but this is the way they describe a picture of foods that actually don't look too bad: They are "three of the dishes incorporated into the 10-day menu cycle for food systems utilizing the bioregenerative and bulk ingredient food sources."

Makes you hungry just reading about it, doesn't it?

It is gratifying to know that scientists are looking into the food metric values of menu cycles and at the reduced nutrient profiles and vitamin degradation of the commercially sterile foods of the space program.

But it doesn't make me want to be an astronaut.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

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