Dining on Mars is a very far-out conversation, if we regard that some of us don’t even really know how to properly dine on Earth.
Yes, you know who you are.
Like you might have seen in the film “The Martian”, the Red Planet is a bit of a tough place to live. The atmosphere is made up of 96% carbon dioxide and temperatures can plummet below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is about the average on a day on Antarctica, where temperatures in the colder season usually run around below 63 Fahrenheit. The gravity is 6/1000 of Earth’s.
So even though blockbusters like “The Martian” show some violent storms, and dust storms can become violent, an F5 tornado on Mars feels more like a breeze. They can grow up to 6 miles, though, but you would probably not be thrashing around in the lower stratosphere screaming and making somersaults.
Mars has fascinated us since ancient times.
Even the Ancient Egyptians have been monitoring Mars’ retrograde movements at least since 1534 B.C., and Neo-Babylonian astronomers were busy at work predicting the planet’s position (maybe to see how far the jump needs to be??). These days, we can take a look at Mars as if we were standing there, using 360-photos and swaying our IPhone in every direction: click Here for some coolness on the Martian plain. If that isn’t the foreshadowing of our future Google-Mars maps, then what is?
When it comes to colonizing other planets, we always come back to the most important topic of all: food.
So, I’m wondering, how would our future colonists dine on Mars? And what should you expect from your diet? Is your sense of taste the same? Calorie intake?
The best way to conceptualize what eating outside of Earth is like is to first look at our current menu on the International Space Station. Water is recycled from cabin air, and food is frozen, refrigerated, or thermo-stabilized. Astronauts use a microwave/forced air convection oven.
This gives us an insight into space food; however, what happens when colonists settle on the Red Planet?
Let us start with the six volunteers that spent four months on a simulated mission on Mars in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. Here the crew had to live and cook in a habitat on Mauna Loa, the Big Island, and could only leave the habitat wearing special space suits. Communication delay was set at 20 minutes like it would be between Mars and Earth, and the scientists made sure the geology was alike to Mars. The weathered basaltic materials found on this part of Hawaii are actually very similar to the Martian regolith found by the CheMin instrument.
The crew’s kitchen was crammed with food that could be brought out into space: freeze-dried beef, chicken chunks, freeze-dried shredded cheese, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, powdered spices, and so on. These kinds of food have to withstand at least a year being shelf-stable, as the crew first has to get to Mars, and then unpack. Your menu would certainly not be a combination of fresh steak, organic potato salad, and creme bruleé. How do we fare off of food that isn’t fresh? Well, to answer this quickly: after the Mars mission experiment, the explorers went straight for the pineapples.
The HI-SEAS crew developed a simple cuisine based on “novelty and creativity”. They liked very specific shelf-stable foods like spam and improvised tortilla wraps, and most of all, couscous. Jean Hunter, a space food researcher at Cornell University, noted, “My gosh, they went through 25 pounds of couscous in a flash.”
Besides couscous-mania, the explorers found the most joy in wrapping custom tortillas, partially because of their busy astronaut schedules. They would wrap whatever they had at hand: Velveeta cheese, canned fish, re-hydrated vegetables, and ever on. Russian borscht and Moroccan tagine were other meals that were a success in the experiment.
Curiously enough, sugared drinks were left untouched. The crew mostly drank water, tea, and coffee.
Speaking of excessive cravings, human sense of taste and smell diminishes in space.
It is now known that ISS astronauts start putting hot sauce in their meals to compensate for the loss of taste. The average journey to Mars will be about 260 days, give or take. That will be a lot of time for our taste buds to desensitize. Also, we might be in an environmentally-controlled habitation when we land on Mars, but how does lack of Terran sun, smell, natural surroundings, and seasons affect our senses?
Another factor is the different gravity present on Mars. With atmospheric pressure about half of Earth on Mars, there is reduced air resistance, and water and oil that is used for cooking would just start floating about in the room. It might not be easy to cook, to say the least.
Micro-gravity also causes our muscles to atrophy, airflow to be reduced, and again, our ability of smell to diminish. The water in our bodies, usually spread out, will start to rise to our heads and gather there – hence the space term “balloonhead”. We might have to resort to artificial gravity.
With physical ailments aside, the reconstituted cheese, potato slices, garlic and so on will be so packaged that colonists will have to reinvent cuisine in space. The term “appetite” could bring on a whole new meaning.
On a good note, scientists at the Wageningen University have found that we can successfully grow vegetables in Martian soil.
Namely radishes, peas, tomatoes, and rye. The scientists found that the Earth-plants had not absorbed the toxic-heavy metals abundant in Martian soil. Even though they have to yet try these vegetables, at least those are good news.
We might even be able to try our Martian talents at hydroponics.
The issue with hydroponics is often that plants, in such a cramped space, compete for light and nutrients, much like us humans do. However, there are some crop plants that can become friends along the way. Scientists have seen this with radishes and also Bibb lettuce and onions. Certainly future colonists on Mars might have a small selection of vegetables on their plates – or tortilla wraps, or couscous.
What will we like to eat? It really depends if our sense of taste changes permanently or remains similar as on Earth, and what kind of food comes in handy and is available.
If our taste palates change, then so will some other senses, making me believe that the term space cuisine will be a hot topic someday when we are expanding in space.
We could have “Cuisine for the Earth taste buds”, “Cuisine for terraformed Mars taste buds” and “Cuisine for the Brave New Tastebuds of Titan” (Titan being extremely toxic to us).
On another note, who has signed up for the trip to Mars?
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