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Mention Space cuisine and images of freeze dried pre-packaged bland food come to mind. However, astronauts for most part don't seem to care - They have more exciting things to ponder over, than what's on the menu. But if scientists are planning to go on excursions to Mars and beyond, this shrink-wrapped cuisine will not be the ideal solution and, it has nothing to do with taste.
There are two reasons for this. First of course is the astronomical (literally) cost of transporting anything to outer Space - Currently, a single pound of food shipped to the International Space Station costs $10,000 USD. So, one can only imagine how prohibitive it will be, to send it all the way to Mars.
And, even if the cost factor can be overcome, there is another issue to consider - Since sending emergency supplies is not an option, how to fit enough food into the already tight shuttle space to last the astronauts for two to three years which, is the estimated time it will take to get to Mars and back. Given how much room pre-packaged food with all its shrink wrapping takes, this could be a tricky task.
Therefore, NASA scientists have been trying to come up with possible solutions. One of the most obvious ones is carrying raw materials in bulk and cooking it along the way and, on the red planet. However, given the limited space, energy constraints and the zero gravity situation, that could be a little challenging. Now, Scientists may actually have their first fresh menu item - Bread!
The brilliant idea was not the brainchild of a Space food scientist but that of high school student Sam Wilkinson. The 16-year-old submitted it as his entry for NASA's recently held two-day Space Apps Challenge that invited participants from all over the world to come up with creative solutions to aid future space exploration missions or help improve life on earth.
Entitled 'Aeration & Low Temperature Baking', the bread recipe entails sealing a mixture of water and carbon dioxide in 2.5 atmospheres (the same as an average soda bottle) chamber. The carbon dioxide dissolves in the water forming carbonic acid and remains in steady state as long as the pressure is maintained. When the astronaut is ready to bake, all he/she has to do is add flour to the mixture and release the pressure. This in turn, will help release the carbon dioxide molecules (similar to how gas bubbles pop out when a soda bottle is opened). However, instead of escaping, the gas will be absorbed by the dough, causing it to rise nicely in a mere 1.8 seconds - Much faster than the traditional method that uses yeast.
However, getting the dough right is just half the challenge - Baking it inside a power-strapped Mars ship is the other. For that, the young student came up with another innovative solution - Cooking it in a sealed, extremely low temperature oven at about 120°C (250°F). Known as the 'crock-pot' method, it does take longer than a conventional oven, but time is probably not that crucial to the astronauts making the long journey to the red planet.
Sealing the dough also takes care of not only retaining the moisture, but also, a more serious issue - that of crumbs flying around the zero-gravity space station and causing irreparable damage to the space craft. In fact that, is the reason why early astronauts ate sandwiches coated with gelatin and why the International Space Station astronauts now stick to tortillas.
Though this innovative entry, still a work in progress, did not impress the judges enough to get a winning spot, it may end up being one of the best solutions for feeding the astronauts if the journey to Mars and beyond ever becomes a reality. The one question that remains? What to eat the bread with!