Mar­tian po­ta­toes and space ‘idlis’

Mint ST - - TASTE - Diya.k@livemint.com

As as­tro­nauts pre­pare for new fron­tiers, food is es­sen­tial to the space sur­vival kit of the fu­ture

In Ri­d­ley Scott’s 2015 film The Mar­tian, stranded as­tro­naut Mark Wat­ney’s (played by Matt Da­mon) act of grow­ing po­ta­toes on the red planet is one of his first and most ba­sic acts of sur­vival. The idea of cul­ti­vat­ing food on a planet with­out the at­mos­phere or wa­ter lev­els needed to do so is nearly as ground­break­ing as the first crops that were planted on earth by Ne­olithic farm­ers around 9500 BC. A se­ries of com­pli­cated sci­en­tific cal­cu­la­tions and ex­per­i­ments later, when Wat­ney is able to suc­ceed and the first batch of po­ta­toes in his im­pro­vised green­house sprout lit­tle green leaves, there is a sense of ex­u­ber­ant achieve­ment that passed from the screen to the cin­ema go­ers. It brought with it the con­vic­tion that life on Mars isn’t such an im­pos­si­ble dream af­ter all.

What is in­ter­est­ing is that Wat­ney’s farm­ing at­tempts were not all that off the mark. Over the last two years, the In­ter­na­tional Potato Cen­tre, a re­search fa­cil­ity based in Lima, Peru has been work­ing on a Potato on Mars project, which are a se­ries of ex­per­i­ments to see if po­ta­toes can ac­tu­ally be grown in an at­mo­spheric con­di­tion like the one on Mars. To do this, they have cre­ated spe­cial Cube­sat con­tain­ers which sim­u­late the en­vi­ron­ment on Mars to see ex­actly what it would take for th­ese tu­bers to sur­vive there.

Food has been sub­ject to as much sci­en­tific test­ing as any of the other as­pects pri­mal to hu­man sur­vival in space. And the idea of es­tab­lish­ing a hu­man colony on Mars in the near fu­ture (Space X’s Elon Musk has stated his com­pany is aim­ing to send the first crewed flight to Mars in as early as 2024) has amped up the pace of re­search and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the field. Nasa has launched sev­eral projects like the 2014 Veg-01 ex­per­i­ment, which saw sci­en­tists suc­cess­fully at­tempt space farm­ing in the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) by grow­ing let­tuce from seeds. The agency has also in­vested in a com­pany called Bee­hex, which has built a 3D printer that will cre­ate fresh, cus­tom­ized food for as­tro­nauts. Al­though there have been bud­get cuts in this realm, the pro­to­type still re­mains with Nasa and the pos­si­bil­ity of fresh pizza on Mars has not been ruled out al­to­gether.

While pre-pack­aged foods still form the bulk of nu­tri­tion for as­tro­nauts, there is plenty of va­ri­ety in the diet, rang­ing from heat-an­deat vari­ants of pasta, sushi and even ‘idlis’ that can be re­hy­drated and con­sumed. All of this is a far cry from the food avail­able on the early manned space mis­sions which had lit­tle to rec­om­mend it. While Yuri Ga­garin’s meals came out of tubes and his main sus­te­nance was a paste of beef and liver, the sec­ond hu­man to or­bit earth, Soviet cos­mo­naut Gher­man Ti­tov, also had a sim­i­lar diet with the ad­di­tion of soup and black­cur­rant juice. In fact, Ti­tov ac­tu­ally vom­ited up his meal due to a long ex­po­sure to weight­less­ness, adding to a less glam­orous list of firsts in space.

The menus on of­fer also fol­lows the cul­tural con­text of the as­tro­nauts and there is food re­search be­ing car­ried out in nearly ev­ery coun­try with am­bi­tions of hu­man space flight pro­grammes. Isro is gear­ing up for its first manned mis­sion to or­bit earth in 2022 (called Ga­ganyaan) and in keep­ing with this, the De­fence Food Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory (DFRL) in My­suru is try­ing to de­sign food to match the re­quire­ments of the as­tro­nauts on board. There are ready-to-eat idli-samb­har meals, khichdi, biryani, poha, juices and more. K. Rad­hakr­ishna, ad­di­tional di­rec­tor of DFRL, is the man be­hind the project. The idlis are cooked and de­hy­drated through in­frared ra­di­a­tion while the samb­har and chut­ney are packed in a pow­dered form and the whole thing can be re­hy­drated into a proper meal with lit­tle loss of flavour and can last up to a year. He also nar­rowed down the rasag­ulla as the per­fect sweet end­ing for space meals. Freeze-dried and pack­aged with pow­dered sugar which can be­come a liq­uid syrup by adding wa­ter, this is yet an­other rea­son for Ben­gal to cel­e­brate its favourite and newly Gi-tagged sweet. Apart from the ac­tual food, the DFRL is also de­vel­op­ing edi­ble crock­ery and cut­lery to re­duce wastage in space.

While an ex­tra-plan­e­tary gro­cery store or farm might still be the stuff of lab ex­per­i­ments, what does ex­ist is space ice cream and one that you can eat on earth. Freezedried as­tro­naut ice cream can be or­dered on­line on Ama­zon. Typ­i­cally avail­able in a block that com­bines lay­ers of vanilla, choco­late and straw­berry flavours, the three-in-one com­bi­na­tion prob­a­bly tastes of child­hood nos­tal­gia. The nov­elty: it doesn’t melt at room tem­per­a­ture.

Mark Wat­ney (played by Matt Da­mon) in his green­house in ‘The Mar­tian’; and (be­low) non-melt­ing As­tro­naut Ice Cream.

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