Space Food: The Key to Feeding the Mars Colony Has Origins in Yellowstone National Park
Fresh content for optimists.
Space Food: The Key to Feeding the Mars Colony Has Origins in Yellowstone National Park
by Ethan A.
Space: the final frontier…and the beginning of approaches to food that could sustain life on new planets—while improving life on our own.
As we boldly commit to go where no one has gone before thanks to new advances in technology, developments in food science need to keep pace. Methods that have previously fed astronauts through decades of missions will fall short of our dreams of reaching greater distances among the stars.
The innovations in food technology required to support deep-space missions, like an expedition to Mars, can lead to new environmentally-friendly farming practices and sustainable protein sources here on Earth and help counter climate change and food scarcity.
Throughout this piece, we’ll trace the progress of food research and development across historical and current missions to frame the challenges facing food in space and how they intersect with those facing our food systems on Earth today. Understanding that trajectory can help us project what farming on the moon could actually look like, the reality of feeding a Mars colony, and how deep-space food innovations might be available on grocery store shelves sooner than you think.
What do astronauts eat? The evolution of space food
When John Glenn was aboard the Friendship 7 in 1962, consuming applesauce was a scientific achievement.1 It wasn’t known at the time whether eating in space would even be possible in a weightless environment or if gravity was required to swallow and digest food.
Astronaut food has always been its own realm of exploration right alongside space itself. For as long as international space agencies have been investing in rockets and rovers, they’ve also pursued new innovations in food technology.
NASA space food facts and history
NASA took inspiration for food on early missions from Army survival rations. Fully cooked meals like beef and vegetables were pureed and packed into aluminum tubes for astronauts to squeeze directly into their mouths.1 It was a bit like eating toothpaste: doable, but definitely not delicious.
Tube meals have been left behind, but the other staple of the early 1960s Mercury missions, freeze-dried foods, have evolved with the rest of the space program.
Freeze-drying preserves food by quickly freezing it and removing all of its moisture in a vacuum chamber. The final result is a lightweight package that retains the food’s nutrition and flavor.1
During Project Gemini, hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells on board flights produced water as a byproduct of their energy cycles which could then be repurposed by astronauts. Their meal areas had water guns that drew from these reservoirs and reconstituted a freeze-dried meal within its original packaging.1 The addition of hot water in later missions opened up a much wider space food menu including scrambled eggs, shrimp cocktail, and mac and cheese.2
As mission lengths increased and astronauts began spending more time on space stations than in flight, the resources available for meals shifted as well.
The Skylab Program later swapped out water-producing fuel cells for solar power.1 In order to conserve water, dehydrated foods were relied upon less than in previous missions. To counter this scarcity, astronauts now had a full galley to cook and eat food in—as well as a freezer.1
Ice cream quickly became a favorite astronaut food. The galley also allowed the preparation of thermostabilized meals—food that has been previously heat processed to prevent spoilage.
Meal time began to look more familiar over time. Now, food warmers heat the aluminum storage cans or plastic pouches that are then held on a tray that can be attached to a wall or directly to the astronaut’s lap. The tray allows astronauts to mix and match several foods at once rather than having to consume an entire container before opening another. Footholds allow a mission team to gather around a table for a meal without them or their food floating off in microgravity.3
Problems with food in space
Even as technology has grown, the same challenges from early missions affect every decision surrounding food in modern space travel: storage and transport; time and mission impact; and nutrition.
Storage and transport
Space flight is a delicate balance of calculations. How much will the rocket fuel required to break through Earth’s atmosphere weigh? Each piece of mission-critical equipment on a rocket is measured against every pound of food needed to support the crew.
This is a big reason for the reliance on freeze-dried meals. Dehydration removes the water weight from food, making it easier to transport more calories and nutrients per pound.
But just because a food is lightweight and shippable doesn’t make it ideal for eating in space.
Time and mission impact
Smaller flights didn’t afford astronauts the time or maneuverability to prepare food; so popping a quick nutrient-dense bar or meal-in-a-tube allowed them to stay focused on mission imperatives.
The wrong kind of snack can be dangerous in space though. Microgravity adds a layer of complexity to building space food menus (to everything really, it even makes footholds and vacuums necessary for going to the bathroom in space).4 If food produces crumbs, those could float into equipment and cause mechanical issues, injure an astronaut’s eye, or worse. An errant potato chip could seal the fate of a mission. That’s why salt and pepper are available in liquid form only.5
Add this to your collection of fun space food facts: tortillas are popular on the International Space Station (ISS) because they provide all the versatility of bread with fewer crumbs!2
Finding food that astronauts like eating that also fits within mission parameters is essential. Crew members of the ISS are currently able to request special deliveries of their favorite items but as we move deeper into space, time will challenge all of our current solutions.2
Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest single space flight, aboard the ISS, at 340 days.6 Crewed missions to Mars are currently projected to take three years, with modeling requiring food solutions that can extend up to five years and be sent ahead of the astronauts along with other supplies.7
Thermostabilization, freeze-drying, and other approaches have extended shelf life up to three years, but all have long-term impacts on the food’s nutrient-quality and flavor.8
Astronauts have enough struggles with maintaining a healthy diet as is, consuming as little as 60 percent of their calorie recommendations across historic missions.9 Burning less energy in reduced gravity, changes in taste and smell perception due to a phenomenon called fluid-shift (a long-term head congestion caused by shifts in gravity), and even the way food aromas disperse differently in space all have surprising effects on appetite and signals to eat.10
While new advancements in food packaging can help increase shelf life for longer space missions, all of these problems with food in space can be addressed with a more exciting solution: astronauts growing their own food during their missions.
How to grow plants in space
Growing food in space isn’t some seedling of an optimistic idea; it’s already shot up into a robust area of study onboard the ISS.11
The Vegetable Production System, or Veggie, produced its first interstellar crop of red romaine lettuce in 2014. NASA uses the plant growth unit to study organic development in microgravity. To make up for missing environmental cues, the Veggie chamber is equipped with LEDs to guide its garden’s growth with a spectrum of light best-suited for the current crop.
Planting without the usual “Earth” component requires implementing hydroponics in space. Each of the six plants in the Veggie grows in its own chamber filled with a growth media that allows for even distribution of water, nutrients, and air among its roots.
Building on the lessons of the Veggie, the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) expanded the ISS’s capacity for horticulture study.11 The Veggie allows astronauts to flex their green thumbs manually whereas the APH automates the process. Outfitted with sensors and cameras, NASA can monitor and conduct experiments remotely.
Astronauts still reap the benefits of the hands-off APH operations, literally. In late 2021, the ISS crew harvested hatch chile peppers from the APH—enjoying the first batch themselves and shipping their second crop back to Earth for further study.12
Remote experiment capabilities expanded beyond plants with the Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) facility.11 Microorganisms that can grow in petri dishes are now getting the APH treatment, studied to further understand what problems might occur growing food in space.
The discoveries these equipment and facilities make possible will unlock the key to farming in space. But the benefits of astronauts growing their own food are far more immediate.
Astronaut food for the body and mind
Have you ever had a taco so good it changed your life? Now imagine you grew the peppers atop that taco yourself. In space.
The impact of engaging food cannot be understated. Astronauts come in under their daily calorie requirements during missions because they grow bored with the menu available to them. In a 2021 interview, former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría said he “found eating in space to be more mechanical, almost an obligation.”13
For a meal’s nutrition benefits to actually matter, it has to appeal enough to a person for them to eat it. NASA explored supplements and dietary formulas to patch over holes in astronaut diets but has since shifted focus to trying to source more nutrients directly from fresh fruit and vegetables.9
Fresh food in space provides benefits beyond being a source of nutrients.
A strawberry might offer a taste of home, of summer. Food can remind us where we’re from. But caring for your food source and nurturing it all the way to its place on your plate engages the brain and helps stave off the monotony of a long, cramped journey.
As missions take astronauts further out among the stars, their link back home will become increasingly important. That link might not be just growing plants in space though…but fungi too.
Fy in Space: Nature’s Fynd’s work with NASA
Here at Nature’s Fynd, we make food products from our nutritional fungi protein, Fy™. We often tout that Fy can be grown anywhere thanks to our proprietary fermentation method—and we’re testing that claim to the extreme as part of our NASA-funded work led by Nature’s Fynd Co-Founder and Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Rich Macur.
As part of NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and in partnership with Montana State University (MSU) and BioServe Space Technologies (BioServe), Fy headed to the International Space Station in July 2022.
Nature’s Fynd actually got its start with NASA support. In 2009, Dr. Mark Kozubal collected the first sample of the microbe that Fy is fermented from, Fusarium strain flavolapis, as part of a Yellowstone National Park-permitted research program backed by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
The volcanic spring it was discovered in helped F. strain flavolapis evolve as extremophilic fungi capable of thriving under harsh conditions. These traits enable the microbe to break down a wide variety of materials and convert them into a food source.
Nature’s Fynd’s ISS experiment
For our EPSCoR flight demonstration, F. strain flavolapis samples and feedstock medium are loaded into cassette bioreactors within a plate habitat, frozen, and then transported to the ISS.
As part of NASA’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, Nature’s Fynd, MSU and BioServe developed the cassette bioreactors to replicate the advantages of Fy’s earthly fermentation process in space. Our usual liquid-air surface fermentation method requires gravity, but with the cassette bioreactors, we can grow Fy using membrane surface fermentation.
Membrane fermentation feeds the microbe through a semipermeable layer between the feedstock and the growing Fy biomat. We’ve tested hundreds of different combinations of membranes, bioreactor configurations and gravity vectors, feedstocks, and growth conditions and are excited to see the results from the next step of experimentation conducted onboard the ISS.
Once Fy arrived at the ISS, its plate habitat containing the cassette bioreactors were entered into a Space Automated Bioproduct Laboratory (SABL)14 incubator developed by our partner, BioServe. They will remotely monitor environmental conditions in the incubator, then the plant habitat with cassette bioreactors will be frozen and sent back to Earth for evaluation of Fy’s growth.
Fy as the future of space food
If our EPSCoR experiment proceeds as expected, Fy could serve as a nutritious food source for life away from Earth. The same qualities that make Fy such an exciting fungi-based protein alternative here could also help address typical problems with food in space.
Similar to a sourdough starter, Fy can be grown from an initial microbe sample over and over again. On Earth, that means we’ll never have to return to Yellowstone to restock our F. strain flavolapis supply. The impact of this trait in space is even more far-reaching.
An interstellar flight could have all its protein requirements met with a small quantity of Fy, regardless of mission duration. Using the same freeze-drying techniques that first fed astronauts in the 1960s, multiple “seed stocks” of Fy can be transported for ongoing or future growth operations with minimal mission impact.
Astronauts will be able to grow Fy with little active involvement. Set that mighty microbe up with its feedstock and membrane surface fermentation can produce new Fy Protein in just a matter of days.
Because F. strain flavolapis is not a picky eater, there’s even the possibility that Fy’s interstellar growth process could enable a completely closed system inflight. Any waste produced through mission operations could be repurposed without affecting Fy’s taste, texture, or nutritional quality.
That nutrition quality is a huge perk too. Fy has all the amino acids (both essential and non essential) critical for building muscle; is a good source of fiber, including beta-glucans and prebiotic fiber; and has no cholesterol or trans fat. It’s even vegan, big 9 allergen-free and grown without hormones, antibiotics or pesticides, making it versatile toward whatever dietary styles astronauts may be following.
Fy’s versatility might actually be its biggest advantage for long-term space travel. We’ve already discussed the nutrition impact of astronauts growing bored with the food available to them.
In space, every batch of Fy can be a new culinary experience all to itself.
Our fungi-based protein is naturally neutral-flavored and grows into a texture similar to chicken. But it can also be made into a liquid or powdered form—all within the same container it will be grown in onboard a space shuttle!
We’ve shown off Fy’s incredible versatility by launching with surprising alternative protein products like meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese.
With Fy, astronauts will be able to bolster their nutrient intake while boosting their mental health across long missions. They can accrue all the psychological benefits of recreating familiar tastes from home while also entertaining themselves through cooking new foods with Fy.
Feeding deep-space flights is just the first step in Fy’s potential. Every effort in space now is bringing us closer to the possibility of our first space colony.
A Moon colony is one small step away—and one giant leap toward a Mars colony
Deep-space exploration capabilities have shot forward thanks to advancements in robotics since astronauts last walked on the moon over 50 years ago. To bring human-led exploration up to pace with modern technology, we’ll get a running start by retracing those first lunar steps.
NASA’s Artemis mission is already underway with targeted launch opportunities in 2022.15
Artemis’s moon plan is twofold: initial human landing by 2024 and sustainable lunar exploration in mid-to-late 2020s.16 With a Base Camp planned near Shackleton Crater, the Artemis missions will lead to the first localized experiments and attempts at in situ resource utilization (ISRU), where the lunar team will be supported by materials collected from their new environment.17
This cycling of information between NASA and Base Camp will demonstrate whether or not growing plants on the moon could be possible through ISRU.
Through the lens of ISRU, the Artemis mission represents what Kurzgesagt frames as the second phase of colonization efforts.18 In these first research and development periods, the Artemis base camp will depend on imports and sending findings and resources back to Earth for analysis. But as our understanding of the moon’s environment and ISRU opportunities advance, lunar bases will become more self-sufficient, encouraging private commercialization, development, and innovation.
Everything we hope to learn operationally on the moon will be quickly applied to the exploration of Mars. But Artemis is more than a trial run; the moon will be an essential stop on the way to Mars.
The Gateway to Mars and Beyond
A critical component of the Artemis mission will be the Gateway.19
Once launched, the Gateway will orbit the moon in an elliptical pattern that keeps it out of the moon’s shadow and able to consistently communicate with Earth.20 Resources for lower-lunar orbit and surface missions can be transported directly to the Gateway, then parceled out and delivered with smaller vehicle launches for easier logistics and fuel efficiency.
Beyond its Artemis applications, the Gateway will serve as an example for how interstellar exploration will progress as a collaborative effort between international programs and private corporations. Existing ISS partners ranging from countries like Canada and Japan to companies like SpaceX have already made funding and technology commitments to the Gateway’s launch.
These mutual investments will help the Gateway develop into a launchpad for further deep space exploration. Mars-bound flights can launch from Earth with lighter resources knowing they can stop at the Gateway, refuel and resupply, then continue on to their final destination.
Commercial interests have long been a part of human space exploration, but we’ve clearly entered an era where public attention follows the bold commitments made by private companies.
SpaceX’s public commitment to landing crewed expeditions on Mars ignited plenty of discourse on the reality behind this vision.21 Where we’re most interested in joining the conversation is alongside Kevin Cannon and his modeling of how we’ll be able to eat once we land on Mars.
The Martian Diet and what we can learn from growing food on Mars
Cannon’s Eat Like a Martian project came as a direct response to SpaceX and the idea of settling humans on Mars. What would we eat? Matt Damon planted potatoes: can plants grow on Mars?
The answer won’t come from science-fiction. Cannon and collaborator Daniel Britt’s paper “Feeding One Million People on Mars” models food self-sufficiency for a Mars colony within 100 years—if we invest in today’s alternative protein innovations.
Food will have to be grown locally to sustain a permanent Mars settlement. But the harsh environment and thin atmosphere will challenge our traditional food systems. Even at the equator, greenhouses won’t receive enough solar energy to sustain staple crops and plants on Mars.
Cannon’s Martian Diet tackles how to grow food on Mars by moving production underground into compact tunnels with fiber optics re-aiming sunlight from the surface, supplemented by LEDs.
Managing ISRU and land-use is essential in Cannon’s modeling. Energy, water, oxygen, and construction materials will be in high demand. That’s where the world of alternative proteins and its trend of more sustainable production methods demonstrates its advantage.
“The constraints imposed by Mars—a cold, thin atmosphere—force you to produce food in ways that are actually more sustainable and ethical than what’s done on Earth with current factory-farming practices,” said Cannon for a piece on Space.com. “So, switching to a ‘Martian diet’ can help our planet.“22
While the Martian Diet is based on cell-based meat and insect proteins, Nature’s Fynd’s Fy protein not only meets its modeled requirements, but exceeds them.
The Brave Little Fy Protein Goes to Mars
In “Feeding One Million People on Mars”, Cannon and Britt outline a table of “[ISRU] Applications to Reduce Food System Masses” to highlight a colony’s faster path toward self-sufficiency.
How is Mars soil suitable for plants? Is the water that’s been discovered drinkable? The short answer is no. But the far more interesting answer is how ISRU can convert these components.
With a low degree of processing, Mars’s regolith gravel could be used as nutrients for a hydroponic growth medium. Nutrient solutions can be sourced from salt-rich soil and ongoing sample analysis from the Curiosity rover23 has been finding more sites abundant with biologically useful nitrogen24 and carbon.25
This means feedstock for Fy could be entirely and easily sourced from Mars itself.
In fact all of the constraints Cannon details in his modeling, along with his ISRU suggestions, are perfectly suited to Fy’s unique strengths.
As explored in our previous “Fy in Space” section, a small sample of Fusarium strain flavlolapis can be easily frozen, stored, and transported in space travel with minimal mission impact to supply long-term missions. Growing Fy is a hands-off process with a quick turnaround time, and the nutrition advantages—both in its nutrient content and the psychological benefits of Fy’s great versatility—could make it a dependable staple of a developing colony’s diet.
Fy production can be easily scaled up in the compact space Cannon depicts in underground tunnels on Mars. On Earth, our liquid-air surface fermentation method allows us to grow Fy on trays that can stack vertically and reduce square footage requirements. That could mean less tunnels and excavation work for food production, so colony efforts can be focused elsewhere.
Cannon closes his paper with recommendations, including, “Space scientists and companies should engage with the alternative protein movement to take advantage of the latest developments and adapt them to be transported and implemented on Mars.”
We hope the results of our EPSCoR experiments can demonstrate the strength of alternative and fungi-based proteins as long-term solutions for feeding humankind—here, on Mars, and beyond.
Inventions from space exploration find their way back to everyday life on Earth
The pipeline of space research creating essential items on Earth is well established. Vacuum cleaners and baby formula both came to us through the NASA Spinoff program.26
What’s unprecedented in the history of space food is the intersection of commercial interests and space programs seeking so many of the same answers. The problems with food in space reflect many of the challenges we’re trying to solve here at Nature’s Fynd: everything from resource scarcity and climate sustainability to ethical farming and meeting individual nutrition needs.
Alternative proteins like Fy have already been revolutionizing the industry; deep-space applications might be the aftershock that reshapes food systems again.
Want to beat the curve and try eating like an astronaut or The Martian Diet for yourself?
https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/blog/the-20-most-frequently-asked-questions-about-the-international-space-station (Accessed 5/4/22)
https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20090006887 (Accessed 5/4/22)
https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/ (Accessed 5/4/22)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtQkz0aRDe8 (Accessed 5/4/22)
https://www.nasa.gov/gateway/overview (Accessed 5/4/22)
https://spinoff.nasa.gov/spinoff1996/42.html (Accessed 5/4/22)