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Space Vegetables Are the Best Hope for Quality Martian Cuisine

Daniel Schubert at the German Aerospace Center is doing research to develop a potential greenhouse colony on Mars.

by Nadja Sayej
Jul 7 2014, 3:10pm
Tomatoes being grown in mini-greenhouses as part of the Eu:CROPIS project. Image: DLR

Space food has improved from the shapeless, bland blocks of the early years. From Borscht soup in a tube from the Soviet space program to Japanese ramen and Chinese astronauts' herbal tea, the International Space Station's menu has grown to reflect its inhabitants' backgrounds—and is tastier to boot. NASA is even working on developing 3D-printed pizza. But for long missions—say a trip to Mars—packing enough food to last for years is a challenge. So why not grow it?

As we’ve learned, astronauts could be growing crops of fruits and veggies on other planets. Daniel Schubert, a project engineer at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), is doing research to develop a potential greenhouse colony on Mars.

How the Heliospectra L4A Series 10, a 600W programmable LED light system, grows food.

The future of space recipes, said Schubert, is vegetarian. “Most astronauts can prepare premade meat or go vegetarian,” said Schubert, noting that cattle ranching on a foreign planet is as yet completely unfeasible. For a country known for its currywurst and schnitzel, the German focus remains on growing space vegetables.

In the German city of Bremen, Schubert and the DLR team have started growing lettuce in a lab under UV lights with the help of Heliospectra, a programmable LED light system for environmentally-closed nutrition food growth. The veggies will grow with recycled urine used as a fertilizer. Since growing butter head lettuce, they’ve also started working on tomatoes, radishes, and cucumbers. 

The taste has improved since the first tests with lettuce by altering the mix of red, blue and ultraviolet light. “The more UV, the better the taste,” said Schubert.  

The plants grow faster than normal since they can have up to 24 hours of light per day. No soil is necessary, as the plants hang in the air with their roots sprayed with nutrients. 

Schubert says fresh veggies will help beat depression, as gardening is a good hobby for life outside of a tin can spaceship. Farming will help produce oxygen and could help provide drinking water. It will also help save money on the cost and weight of food brought into space. Since flying to Mars will take roughly three years, astronauts could pack seeds to help replace heavy food—a big deal, as every kilo of food costs thousands of dollars to carry into space.

Lettuce roots dangling in the air. Image: DLR

The future of space food is also in herbs and spices. “In microgravity or low gravity environments, people don’t taste much anymore,” said Schubert. “Your tongue is getting swollen because there’s no gravity. You don’t have same taste than on Earth. That is why astronauts have very spicy and salty food in space so they can actually taste something.” 

Oregano or pepper will be featured in space recipes, he said. “It depends on what you can cook out of that,” he said. “With cucumbers and lettuce, you could make a salad with pepper, fresh herbs, or basil. The fresh smell of herbs is good for well-being, from a psychological point of view. So is having a lot of strawberries, they’re relaxing.”

While no recipes have been developed, as they’re still harvesting, their target crops at the moment are radishes and peppers. “It’s a national thing,” he said. “If the crew is Japanese or Chinese, they might want a slightly different choice, like kale or spinach, perhaps. There are cultural differences. That’s our European or American perspective.”

In what looks like a space unit in itself, the team's food lab has a closed-loop test facility for cultivating plant experiments. That includes a bioanalytics room (to put post-harvest veggies under the lens), a workshop, and electronic work benches. There are five grow chambers for irrigation and LED testing, with an additional four grow chambers for CO2 gas exchange measurements. The team is even working with apple trees, too.

But will this save money? Shipping a full-scale greenhouse to another planet like Mars will cost millions. “You take the food there or, or you take the greenhouse and grow food there,” said Schubert. “Then you have a fresh product. It’s a trade-off.”

The DLR test facility. Image: DLR

For astronauts cooped up in a spacecraft for years, fresh food could be crucial, and farming could help break up the monotony of spaceflight. We've already seen how much astronauts care about having simple culinary pleasures. Who could forget the time Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin ate a toothpaste tube of chocolate sauce? Or when Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang wasn't allowed to bring reindeer jerky in the spacecraft because it was close to Christmastime and it bothered American colleagues

Probably the most memorable space food moment was when the crew of Gemini III snuck a corned beef sandwich onboard for their beloved mission commander Gus Grissom, resulting in floating pieces of bread—and the ire of both Congress and NASA.

The Antarctic greenhouse at Neumayer Station III, a German research station, will be home to the first greenhouses from the German team, which will be tested for nine months in 2016-17. The test greenhouses fit into standard shipping containers with a mobile farming system.

As tantalizing as 3D-printed pizza sounds, the immediate future of space food lies in Italian salad, strawberries, and herbs galore.

“I like the idea of the 3D-printed pizza, but where are ingredients coming from?” Schubert asked. “Once I see a perfect 3D printed apple that tastes like an apple, then I’ll say ‘forget the greenhouse, let’s go the 3D printing route.’ But I’ve yet to see it.”