FOOD AND NU­TRI­TION

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Science -

Weight­less­ness presents sev­eral prob­lems for eat­ing in space. With­out grav­ity, crumbs are a real health haz­ard, float­ing in the air to be in­haled into your lungs. And the re­dis­tri­bu­tion of bod­ily flu­ids mean tis­sues in your head swell and you strug­gle to smell or taste things prop­erly – just like hav­ing a cold. So as­tro­nauts of­ten pre­fer spicy foods, and tend to eat breads like tor­tillas that don’t crum­ble. Prac­ti­cally all the food on the ISS is prepack­aged and is sim­ply re­hy­drated and heated up – imag­ine eat­ing noth­ing but airline food for months on end. Ev­ery six months or so a re­sup­ply ves­sel is launched from Earth to de­liver es­sen­tial stocks. It’s stuffed with food, wa­ter, spare clothes, fuel, oxy­gen and so on.

But for longer space mis­sions, such as a Moon base or mis­sion to Mars, con­stant re­sup­ply would be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive or out­right im­pos­si­ble. We’ve seen al­ready how hi­ber­na­tion tech­nolo­gies in the fu­ture may al­low crews to sleep on the way to Mars, and so re­lieve the ne­ces­sity for a large amount of travel food, but when they wake up on ar­rival, food will once again be a pri­or­ity. In­stead of re­ly­ing on de­liv­er­ies from Earth, Mars colonists would need to learn to be self-suf­fi­cient – to be­come space farm­ers!

In the film The Mar­tian, Matt Da­mon’s char­ac­ter cul­ti­vates pota­toes in re­golith (the pow­dery rocky sur­face) mixed with his crew­mates’ ex­cre­ment to pro­vide nu­tri­ents. And this isn’t too far off the truth of what space agen­cies are con­sid­er­ing for habi­tats on Mars (mi­nus the poo). For ex­am­ple, last year sci­en­tists at Wa­genin­gen Uni­ver­sity in the Nether­lands made sim­u­lated Mar­tian soil and tested which crops could be grown in it. They found that toma­toes, peas, radishes, rye and rocket grew well, but spinach strug­gled. They are now test­ing whether pota­toes and beans could be cul­ti­vated on Mars. The en­vi­ron­ment is so hos­tile you would need to pro­vide pres­surised, in­flat­able green­houses, but sci­en­tists re­main hope­ful that fu­ture Mar­tians could live off the land.

And what about meat? Keep­ing farm an­i­mals on an of­f­world base would be enor­mously dif­fi­cult – they would take up a huge amount of space and re­sources. So in­stead, fu­ture space ex­plor­ers are likely to be mostly veg­e­tar­ian, and get small amounts of an­i­mal pro­tein from bugs. In­sects can be reared in high-den­sity and fed on plant waste. Taiko­nauts on China’s Tian­gong-2 space sta­tion have been rais­ing silk­worms, which could serve as a pro­tein-rich source in the fu­ture. So per­haps fu­ture Mar­tians will be eat­ing bug burg­ers in home-grown wheat buns with let­tuce and tomato!

“MARS COLONISTS WOULD NEED TO

LEARN TO BE SPACE FARM­ERS!”

RIGHT: ISS as­tro­nauts rely on de­liv­er­ies of fresh food to top up their sup­plies, but this wouldn’t be fea­si­ble on a Mars or Moon base

BE­LOW: From left to right, radishes grown in Moon soil sub­sti­tute, Mars soil sub­sti­tute, and Earth soil

Prof Lewis Dartnell is an as­tro­bi­ol­ogy re­searcher at the Uni­ver­sity of West­min­ster

and au­thor of The Knowl­edge: How To Re­build Our World Af­ter An Apoca­lypse

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