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Meals for Mars: NASA working to design deep space food system for astronauts

During interplanetary travel, astronauts can't just run to the grocery store to pick up a few things.
Credit: NASA

With the push to develop ways for astronauts to make future missions to Mars more of a reality, there's likely one important aspect you didn't realize matters to the success of that effort -- food.

While in space, astronauts can't just make a run to the grocery store to pick up a few things or order in from their favorite restaurant. 

So, how do they stay healthy and keep enough sustenance for such strenuous missions? It's called a food space system or a "menu for Mars."

"Designing a space food system that provides astronauts with ample sustenance on long and distant missions is crucial to humans venturing farther into space," NASA wrote.

Making sure a food system exists to support missions from low-Earth orbit to reaching the depth of the red planet, comes with its own set of challenges.

NASA says it has come a long way over the decades of space exploration when it comes to astronaut meals. In the early days, the human space program's food was comprised of "cubes and semi-liquids stuffed inside tubes," but that doesn't fly anymore.

Astronauts need things like variety, nutrition, stability, and space-ready appliances to become more "Earth-independent," according to the space agency.

The need to expand food capabilities is especially pressing when a mission to Mars could be a multi-year effort. NASA scientists say the risk of a lack of variety could lead to "menu fatigue" and cause astronauts to eat less.

Then there's the need for food source dependability aboard the spacecraft to ensure a deficiency isn't reached.

“One of the big concerns with growing food is that if it doesn't grow and you were depending on it, now you have insufficient food, which can be a very, very big concern when you're going on these missions,” NASA Scientist Grace Douglas said. 

To help keep crews fulfilled during interplanetary travel, NASA has launched the Deep Space Food Challenge which is a competition to help find innovative space food systems. 

Click here for more information on how to submit your idea for the chance to win the up to $500,000 prize.

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