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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Vegans in space, now about that space suit

The International Space Station, Virgin Galactic's announcement that they will offer regular flights for tourists, proposed colonies on the Moon and Mars are all the buzz for this year’s World Space Week symposiums scheduled October 4 – 10. NASA scientists, administrators, technology whips and the public will convene in Houston and locations around the world for a week long round of lectures, presentations and workshops all designed to focus the world’s attention on space and space exploration.

Among other topics of general interest food science and dietary development for future space programs will be on the agenda.

Despite the success of the Mars Pathfinder and its little rover that could, NASA isn't banking solely on robotics for future planetary exploration. It still dreams of sending real people to the Red Planet. NASA wants to do it soon, in the next 15 years or so according to most sources.

The trouble is, Mars is far place. It's a six-month commute--one way. Once there, it makes sense that the astronauts would stick around for a while, most likely more than a year. After a typical Martian day, (equal to 24.6 hours) working in their new habitat Mars exploration teams would presumably like to return to their quarters, kick off their space boots and sit down to what is mouthwateringly referred to by food scientists as edible biomass... and all of their cosmic cuisine could be vegetarian.

The reason, says Cornell agricultural and biological engineer Jean Hunter, is simple--in space, weight costs.

"During missions, astronauts are limited to less than four pounds of food per person per day, with another pound taken up by packaging, On multiyear missions to planets such as Mars, the future space shuttle, however it's designed, won't be big enough to carry enough food. It would require too much fuel.”

In addition, no Mars ship would have enough storage space for a big Sub-Zero meat locker, or for a pen, coop, or corral to hold fresh pigs, chickens, or cows. Thus, meat-based dishes and fresh milk are out. Besides, notes Hunter dryly, "it's easier to pick a plant than it is to butcher a goat.

"So the astronauts will have to grow their own vegetables, not only because of the lack of storage space on long missions but also because it will allow them to have fresh food," she says. "It's our responsibility to NASA to come up with a variety of recipes and help them make decisions about food choices in terms of the cost of each dish."

Nutritional factors must also be addressed; meals must supply the recommended dietary allowance of vitamins and minerals necessary to perform in space. Calorie requirements are suggested by NASA FTCSC Space Food Insights and are based on a formula that takes into account each astronaut's height, weight, and age.