Animal Smarts Challenge! Meet your scientists

Meals on Mars Science Background


Eating food is a lot more fun when it floats off your plate! If you think it was hard getting used to the food at sleep-away camp, imagine what the food is like when you’re on the way to Mars. To prepare for space travel, food scientists must think about how to prepare and preserve food, how astronauts will eat in zero gravity, and how they’ll dispose of food and human waste. Once they’re on Mars, they’ll need to know how to grow or produce their own food there. Learn more delicious facts about space food. You’ll find out that it’s out of this world.

A distant sun rises over the red dust on the horizon. It’s cold – about 60 below zero. Your stomach grumbles as you gaze at the Martian sky. A bright "star" twinkles – it’s the Earth, and you’re 42 million miles away from your Mom’s famous bacon and egg breakfast. Luckily, food scientists back on Earth have spent years figuring out how to bring delicious and nutritious meals all the way to Mars so that future astronauts (like you!) can enjoy the comforts of home on another planet.

n 1961, Russian astronaut Gherman Titov became the first human to eat in space. The following year, American John Glenn Jr. gulped down a tube of applesauce. Since then, the space menu has gotten much tastier. Astronauts can now choose from a large variety of delicious foods. M&Ms, Jello, and shrimp cocktail are some of their favorites.

Why shrimp cocktail? Things smell different in space because of the lack of gravity, so an astronaut’s sense of taste is changed. They like foods that are spicy, which is why shrimp cocktail is an all-time favorite. It is also why astronauts enjoy packages of spices such as salt and pepper (in liquid form), ketchup, mustard, salsa and hot sauce!

Cooking for astronauts is a lot harder than cooking a meal in your kitchen. Astronauts need the right amount of calories and protein to have enough energy to explore in space. But the food also has to be tasty! When you’re millions of miles away from Earth, a soggy breakfast might put you in a really bad mood.

So Food scientists have to prepare the food and they also have to preserve it, or figure out how to keep it from going bad. Most space food goes bad after two years. But it may take five years to travel back and forth to Mars. So the food has to last that long and still taste good. If you’ve ever seen or smelled rotting food, you know that’s not what astronauts want to eat.

There are many different ways to preserve food. Freeze-dried food is where all the water is removed. Taking out the water makes the food much lighter. When each pound costs about $10,000 to send up to space, it is important that the food be as light as possible. Once the freeze-dried food is in space, astronauts add water before eating. The chemical batteries used to generate electricity on the space shuttle make water as a waste product. But on the International Space Station, astronauts have to get their water another way – so they reuse their urine! Pee is sterile, so if you filter it, it won’t make you sick.

Another way to preserve food is by cooking and canning it so it stays fresh without refrigeration. Cans of tuna or cooked vegetables are preserved this way. And some food can go to space without any additional preparation. Foods like M&Ms, nuts, and cookies make a great snack for an astronaut on the go!

Once the food is cooked and packaged back on Earth, the astronauts have to figure out how to eat it while traveling in space. Astronauts will travel to Mars in zero gravity. Imagine pouring a glass of orange juice in zero gravity. The juice might float out of your glass before it reaches your mouth! That’s why astronauts drink liquids through straws.

At home, you might think that your fork or knife is the most important tool for eating. But in space, scissors are the most important tool. Astronauts use scissors to cut open all of their food packages. They use Velcro to keep their food from floating off the table. What’s the biggest difference between an earth sandwich and a space sandwich? A space sandwich uses tortillas instead of bread! Unlike bread, tortillas won’t break into tiny crumbs that can float around and get stuck in the equipment or up the astronaut’s nose.

When you’re done eating at home, you can simply throw away your leftovers or food packaging. But in space, there’s no one to take out the trash. Scientists must figure out how to get rid of all the waste.There’s another form of waste that must be dealt with too. Urine can be reused to make water, but getting rid of "number two" is harder. Microbes such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi are tiny organisms that can make you sick. Human waste is crawling with microbes. Astronauts must be careful not to contaminate their food, the spaceship, or even Mars with unwanted microbes.

Once astronauts get to Mars, they might actually be able to grow their own food. Scientists also want to find out how to grow food in the spaceship on the way to Mars. Mars has low atmospheric pressure, low gravity, no water, extremely low temperatures and high levels of ultra violet radiation – that’ll give you a major sunburn. Those are just a few challenges of cooking on Mars.

Scientists are looking into hydroponic farming – a way of growing plants without soil. They have chosen ten "pick-and-eat" vegetables to grow on the way to Mars. These include strawberries, radishes, bell peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, fresh herbs, green onions, cabbages, and Popeye’s favorite –spinach!

Fresh vegetables will provide vital nutrients, but more importantly, their bright colors and crisp taste will keep the astronauts happy. Stress can lead to poor health and performance. So keeping the stress levels down and the happiness levels up is critical to a successful mission. The longer the mission, the more time for astronauts to become homesick and depressed. Food is a major factor in preventing depression.

This is why NASA pays such close attention to the way the food tastes. Every food is taste-tested by the astronauts before it goes onto the space menu. They rate each item on a scale from 1 to 9, from disgusting to delicious. If a food scores below a 6 it will not make the cut. Scientists have been trying for years to send pizza into space, but they still haven’t got the flavor and texture quite right. There’s nothing worse than expecting a yummy slice of crisp pizza and getting soggy cardboard.

How will scientists discover ways to prepare and preserve food so they can send happy and well-fed astronauts to space? Now you try to solve some of the challenges of preparing for space travel. Maybe you can figure out how to grow food in space, how to reuse water, or get rid of food waste. Maybe you’ll even be the person who figures out how to make delicious pizza in space!

Then some day in the not-so-distant future, you might be standing on the red dusty surface of Mars. You will tend your hydroponic garden. You will drink your filtered, reused urine. You will eat your delicious space pizza. And you will look lovingly at that twinkling star 42 million miles away that you once called home.

Meet Your Scientists

Michelle PerchonokMichele Perchonok, Advanced Food Technology Project Scientist

What do you like most about being a scientist? I like problem solving, which as a scientist, I do all the time. I also like to look at how our NASA food system affects other systems such as the water system and waste system.

Hobbies: Reading, Puzzle solving, Crocheting, Healthy cooking

What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Do well at school, especially in the math and sciences. Be curious and ask questions – dig deeper into what you are curious about.

How/when did you discover your love of science? It was in 7th grade. I took chemistry and absolutely loved it. I majored in chemistry in college. Then during college, I discovered food science through a summer job. So I studied food science (food chemistry) in graduate school.

What is the funniest professional experience you have had? My first job in the food industry was working in the Pet Food Division of The Quaker Oats Company. I was tasked to improve Moist Meals, a cat food. I would produce different formulations (recipes) of cat food and feed them to the cats in the Quaker Kennels. The cats would have a choice between the food I produced and a competitor’s product. I would watch (more like stared at) the cats eat the food and try to learn why they more often picked the competitor’s product. I was never a cat lover (I am more of a dog lover) but I really didn’t like cats after that experience.

Jay NealJay Neal, PhD Assistant Professor

What do you like most about being a scientist? It allows me to be curious, use my imagination and work in a lab. In the lab we get to create models and try to solve problems such as food safety in space. It’s fun!

Hobbies: Cooking, fishing, camping and watching my kids play soccer.

What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Stay curious and be creative. I have conducted very high-tech experiments using household items like tape and balloons. Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it is not effective or useful.

How/when did you discover your love of science?I’ve always been curious and had a microscope and telescope as a kid. I also really like to cook. Through cooking, I discovered that following a recipe is like a word problem and that there is a lot of math involved with different volumes and measuring.  Also, there are a lot of chemical reactions such as fermentation and denaturation which make food taste great. Food science helped me combine my love of cooking with science.  

What is the funniest professional experience you have had? We were remodeling the lab and needed to paint it. Sometimes the paint samples don’t look the same as it does on the wall. I picked what I thought would be a very nice pale green but when the painters finished, my walls looked like pistachio ice cream! I asked the dean (he is like the principal of the college) if I could re-paint the walls. He thought it was so funny that he said no and now refers to the color in the lab as “Jay Neal green”.


Vickie KloerisVickie Kloeris:
NASA Technical Manager of the Shuttle and Space Station food systems

What is one of the most interesting lessons you have learned about food in space? Well I think one of the lessons that we’ve learned especially from long duration stays on the space station is that variety is key. When a crew member is on orbit for 6 months what they want is the most variety possible. We also have learned that crew members really like if possible to have a certain amount of fresh food available to them. Early on in the shuttle program there was not a mechanism for getting any fresh food into the food system. They wanted a method to at least get a minimal amount of fresh fruit so the fresh food tray was added to the middeck of the shuttle to allow small quantities of fresh food to go to orbit with our shuttle crew members.

How did you come into your career? When I was in high school I was very interested in math and science and so I went into college as a biology major, and ultimately I decided to pursue micro biology for my undergraduate degree. As a senior I took a course in food microbiology that was actually over in the college of agriculture because the food science was affiliated with agriculture. I then became interested in the application of microbiology to the processing and preservation of food. So I decided to get my master degree in food science and technology. When I found out there was an application of food science to theNASA food program I decided that’s the job I wanted.

What is the most important thing for elementary school kids to know about a career in science? Take all the math and all the science that was available to me when I went through school and that prepared me- I felt that prepared me for my college studies.

I think it’s very important for students to get as much education that they can and try to find that thing that pulls their interest in my case its science – biological sciences specifically were the thing I was interested in but you need to find that thing that really holds your interest so you can concentrate on that and develop that into a career path for you.