Supper Club on Mars

Before people can colonize the Red Planet, they have to figure out what they'll eat once they get there.

NASA / Reuters

For three weeks in May and June of this year, the Pierogi Boiler—a cavernous Brooklyn factory turned art-gallery space—was home to an odd structure: a 1,200-square-foot translucent plastic bubble, held up by air pressure. One corner of the structure housed a kitchen and pantry; in another section was a greenhouse, where edible weeds grew in agar, a plant-based gelatin.

This was “Menu for Mars,” an art exhibition and culinary experiment created by two New York artists to explore the future of food on the Red Planet. “In the past, food traditions have migrated with people and changed to the new land,” said Heidi Neilson, one of the exhibit’s co-organizers. “So we wanted to see how our food might adapt to Mars.”

Over the past year, Neilson and her colleague Douglas Paulson ran the Menu for Mars Supper Club, meeting with chefs, gardeners, scientists, culinary anthropologists, and nutritionists to learn what future Mars colonists might be able to grow, cook, and eat. The exhibit was the culmination of all that the pair learned from the supper club: They stocked the kitchen inside the bubble with dried and powdered ingredients, filled the greenhouse with hardy plants, and invited guest chefs to try their hand at preparing a meal fit for another planet.

One of the more memorable dishes created in the exhibit, Neilson said, was a version of lahpet, a spicy salad of pickled tea leaves popular in Burma (this one was made with dehydrated cabbage and powdered lime juice). Another was pemmican, a type of meatball made with jerky and once popular with 17th-century American fur traders.

Both recipes are a far cry from the meals of the earliest days of space exploration, when astronauts were limited to flavorless cubes that were eaten by hand and pastes that had to be squeezed out of tubes.

The International Space Station crew can now choose from around 170 entrees, snacks, and beverages. But cosmic cuisine still comes in one form—dried. After all, up there, there are no refrigerators. No freezers. No stoves. Food is made edible either through heat or hydrating it with a jet of water.

Because food has to be lightweight, compact, and have an incredibly long shelf life, it’s pre-prepared and portioned individually: cans with pull-out lids, bottles with droppers, soft pouches that can be torn open with a pair of scissors. Seafood, for instance, is thermostabilized, or treated with heat to kill germs; a piece of steak is irradiated, cooked in a foil-laminated packet and zapped by radiation so it doesn’t perish. Pepper is dunked in oil, and salt is more like brine, so that the grains don’t drift away and lodge in the machinery.

Figuring out how people will eat on Mars, though, is another kind of challenge. Astronauts on the International Space Station, orbiting 250 miles above Earth, regularly receive shipments of food. But because Mars is 140 million miles away, fresh supplies likely will arrive only once every couple of years, according to Kim Binsted, an investigator of NASA’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project (HI-SEAS).

NASA plans to send people to Mars around 2035, while the Dutch non-profit Mars One aims to land a batch of settlers by 2027—but whenever the first people arrive, they’ll have to know how to fend for themselves on a planet where the air is poisonous, the nights are frosty, and the dead terrain won’t nurture any Earthly vegetation.

With that in mind, NASA has been researching ways of cultivating vegetables in space. Recently, astronauts aboard the International Space Station sampled the first plant grown in space: a dark-red romaine lettuce named “Outredgeous.” They cleaned the leaves with non-toxic wipes before eating them.

The crop was grown in a plant-growth system called “Veggie,” used for rearing plants in the soil-free and dimly lit environment of the space station. The size of a double-drawer filing cabinet, the incubator supplies seeds with light, water, and nutrients: The saplings draw carbon dioxide and warmth from the cabin to help them grow, while “sunlight” comes from a panel of LED bulbs.

NASA is currently testing other vegetables to see how they fare in the same device, including peppers, radishes, and dwarf tomatoes, said Gioia Massa, a scientist at Kennedy Space Center and the head of the Veggie project.

According to Massa, Veggie is NASA’s first step towards creating a “bio-regenerative life-support system” for a spaceflight to Mars—an artificial ecosystem that behaves like a mini-Earth. The flora will provide people with the minerals and vitamins they need. In return, the people will exhale the carbon dioxide that the plants will breathe in.

For the people it feeds, though, Veggie’s bigger draw is the diversity of texture that it offers. The typical astronaut diet currently “doesn’t have too many elements that are crunchy,” Massa explains—things like toast and crackers create crumbs, which can be hard to contain without the help of gravity. But the ability to grow vegetables in space may finally allow astronauts to introduce crunch into an otherwise mostly soft diet. Lettuce may not be the most exciting vegetable on Earth, but in space, it’s a game-changer.

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Twenty minutes outside the small town of Hanksville, Utah, is a collection of canyons, mesas, and buttes called the San Rafael Swell, a structure whose stark landscape looks strikingly similar to that of Mars. In fact, it’s one of a small handful of places where one can experience Mars on Earth.

The San Rafael Swell is home to one of two research stations run by the Lakewood, Colorado-based Mars Society, a non-profit organization that promotes the human settlement of the Red Planet. The purpose of the lab is to simulate various aspects of the planet’s environment and help scientists understand how to prepare for life on Mars. (The other station is on Devon, an island in the Canadian Arctic.)

The core of the Mars Desert Research Station is a two-level cylindrical habitat, 36 feet high and 26 feet wide, mounted on stilts. Downstairs is the science and engineering laboratory; upstairs are the living quarters, a social area, and a kitchenette, built to hold up to six people. Scientists from across the country can apply for a stay at the research station, spending two weeks inside the habitat at a time.

The habitat is connected by an above-ground tunnel to the “GreenHab,” a greenhouse that grew carrots, hops, quinoa, green onions, cilantro, and basil until it was damaged by fire last year. (Plans to rebuild it are underway.) The vegetables there grew in a replica of Martian soil, said Nick Orenstein, the GreenHab coordinator: a rust-colored dust rich in volcanic ash.

But growing crops is only one part of the equation. The people living on Mars will also have to know what to do with their ingredients—farmed, delivered, or otherwise.

Two years ago, NASA launched HI-SEAS on the slopes of a volcanic mountain in Hawaii. There, it conducts a series of studies to determine what would keep explorers mentally and physically healthy over the course of a life spent on Mars.

In one of these studies in the summer of 2013, a group of eight men and women entered a white dome on the mountain, where they stayed for the next 120 days. Twice a week during their sojourn on “Mars,” they would make themselves a meal from scratch with items in the dome’s pantry—“It was essentially Iron Chef,” as Megan Garber described it for The Atlantic in 2013, “with the mystery ingredient being Mars.” Ingredients, all shelf-stable, included canned eel, egg crystals, Nutella, tahini, baking soda, lentils, a brick of tofu, lentils, and desiccated chicken and beef, among other things. (All other days, they would help themselves to a pre-prepared TV-dinner-style meal.)

The focus of this particular experiment, run in conjunction with the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University, was “to gauge the pros and cons of two gastronomic models: an instant, packaged diet, and one that required cooking,” said Binsted, who also works as a professor of computer sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “They each have strengths, weaknesses, costs, and constraints that need to be taken into account. So, on a Mars mission, NASA would send both. Based on the outcome our study, they will know how much to send of each.”

Before entering the facility, Sian Proctor, a HI-SEAS crew member and professor of geology at South Mountain Community College, in Phoenix, Arizona, hosted a recipe contest on social media, soliciting ideas for meals based on the ingredient list posted on the HI-SEAS website. The crew tried out several of the suggestions and voted on what they liked best. The winning entries included Moroccan tagine, a no-crust quiche muffin, bean soup, a quinoa and coconut bar, and salmon patties. By far, though, the most commonly used ingredient was SPAM. “We did a lot of cooking with SPAM,” Proctor said.

It remains to be seen which dishes actually make it to Mars—or, as the members of the Mars Supper Club have wondered, whether a new planet will give rise to a totally new cuisine, its settlers using their supplies to start new food traditions from scratch. As the website of the Menu for Mars project proclaims: “There’s nothing to eat on Mars, unless you eat rock.”