To ensure the vegetarian diet packs the right amount of protein, the researchers are designing a variety of dishes that include tofu and nuts, including a Thai pizza that has no cheese but is covered with carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, scallions, peanuts and a homemade sauce that has a spicy kick.
To keep this menu going, and get the most out of any research about food sustainability on Mars, Cooper says it's possible NASA will choose to have one astronaut solely dedicated to preparing the food — the Emeril of the Mars mission.
Still, since it remains unclear how much time mission planners will want to spend on food preparation, Cooper is also building an alternate pre-packaged menu, similar to how things are done for crews that do six-month stints on the International Space Station. For this option, though, the food will need to have a five-year shelf life compared with the two years available now. NASA, the Department of Defense and a variety of other agencies are researching ways to make that possible, Cooper said.
The ideal, though, would be to combine the two options.
"So they would have some fresh crop and some food that we would send from Earth," Cooper said.
One of the biggest obstacles, at the moment, may be the budgetary constraints. President Barack Obama's budget proposal in February canceled a joint US-European robotic mission to Mars in 2016, and the rest of NASA's budget has also been chopped.
At the moment, Michele Perchonok, advanced food technology project scientist at NASA, said about $1 million on average is spent annually on researching and building the Mars menu. NASA's overall budget in 2012 is more than $17 billion. She is hopeful that as the mission gets closer — about 10 to 15 years before launch — that the budget will grow, allowing for more in-depth, conclusive research.
The mission is important: It will give scientists the chance for unique research on everything from looking for other life forms and for the origin of life on Earth to the effects of partial gravity on bone loss. It also will let food scientists examine the question of sustainability. "How do we sustain the crew, 100 percent recycling of everything for that two and a half years?" Perchonok said.
But first things first: None of this will happen without food.
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