This is the seventh in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
The other day I had to figure out what to make for dinner. On this mission, we have plenty of raw ingredients — pastas, tofu, dehydrated beef, freeze-dried vegetables, and even complete meals — so I puzzled over my options for some time. My turn to “cook” fell on a day that we were required, by the HI-SEAS food study, to use just-add-water-and-heat foods only. In the end, I went with a dehydrated meal of sweet and sour pork with rice. On the side, I added rehydrated green beans, couscous and some pouches of instant paneer makhani in case the sweet and sour pork turned out to be a dud. From concept to sit-down dinner for six, the whole process took about 35 minutes.
Not bad. But to be honest, on that day, I’d rather have spent the time doing something else. It would have been awfully nice to simply turn to a Star Trek-like replicator and pull out plates of perfectly layered lasagna. And I know I’m not alone in thinking this. That’s why recent news that NASA awarded a $125,000 grant to a company developing a 3-D food printer for future space missions got so much attention. After all, it promises to reduce time in the kitchen with a sci-fi flourish. But should printed food be the future of sustenance on remote space outposts? Based on my experiences living and eating on this simulated Mars mission, I’m not so sure.
I’ll explain my hesitation, but before I do, some background on the food-printing project. According to NASA, an Austin, Texas, company called Systems and Materials Research Consultancy will use the money to “conduct a study for the development of a 3-D printed food system for long-duration space missions.” In other words it’s a very early concept project.
Even so, the basic idea is intriguing: a 3-D printer can put down layers of shelf-stable macronutrients — unflavored proteins, starches and fats — to create a variety of shapely foodstuffs. Micronutrients like magnesium, calcium, and iron, and flavors like “beef” and “horseradish” can also be added.
Such a food printer could actually solve a number of major challenges that would come with feeding astronauts on Mars. First, today’s astronaut food doesn’t have the five-year shelf life needed for such a long mission. Second, it’s made with processing technology that degrades micronutrients. Third, astronauts right now don’t have a lot of options when it comes to their meals, so they tend to get bored and eat less over time, which is bad for their health.
With a 3-D printer, both macro- and micronutrients could be stored in airtight containers and pumped directly into printing systems, taking care of the shelf-life problem. And a printer could obviously inject nutrients into foodstuffs as well as create a variety of texture and flavor combinations, so there could always be something interesting to eat.
The question of satisfaction
As proposed, the food-printing project addresses some of the same challenges the HI-SEAS food study is investigating. Take menu fatigue. We’re testing crew food preferences for pre-prepared meals (sweet and sour pork with rice from a can) vs. meals creatively prepared with shelf-stable ingredients (sushi, pizza, etc.). Then there is shelf life. Most of our foods are dehydrated or freeze-dried, which confers an extremely long shelf life. Our powdered eggs, for instance, are good for seven years.
But what the food-printing project doesn’t address, and what the HI-SEAS project is intimately concerned with, is the effect of various types of food on crew mood, health, and ultimately, productivity. So far in our mission, there’s a trade-off in pre-prepared meals and creatively prepared meals. While the data aren’t yet in, I can say that in general, although pre-prepared meals don’t take long to pull together, they are less satisfying to eat. Creative meals take longer to prepare but are often delicious and tend to lift our moods and foster a communal spirit to a surprising degree.
And even though I might grumble about the time spent picking out foods and preparing the meal, I almost always feel satisfied when the crew sits down to eat it. I know I’ve contributed something important to the group. And sometimes the food even tastes good. The sweet and sour pork, for instance, wasn’t as bad as we had feared.
Automation and efficiency in food preparation have their place, of course. Energy, water and time will always need to be considered when designing a food system for astronauts. But it’d be a shame if interplanetary explorers were completely cut out of the culinary loop. A connection to food is a connection to Earth and to the rest of humanity. When you’re tens of millions of miles from your planet of origin, separated by the void, home-cooked meals might just become more important than ever.