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NASA is figuring out how to feed astronauts heading to Mars

How do you feed humans on a six-month space trip?

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Astronaut Scott Kelly has spent over 520 days in space.
NASA

How do people eat in space? Folks on the International Space Station can't exactly nip down to KFC for some popcorn chicken during a loose Friday night. And last time I checked, Uber Eats doesn't deliver to Mars.

Which begs the question: How does NASA plan to feed astronauts heading on a potential mission to Mars?

Glad you asked. Food scientists Grace L Douglas, Sara R Zwart, Scott M Smith from NASA recently published a paper in The Journal of Nutrition going into detail on the topic. They don't yet have all the answers, but they're in the process of identifying the main issues.

On the ISS, Astronauts get to choose 20% of their food. The remaining 80% comes from a "shared, standard set of foods." This is brought via resupply vehicles that bring fresh fruit and vegetables in addition to food that can be stored longer term. That's literally not going to fly for a Mars mission, so things are going to be more challenging.

NASA's current strategy seems to be to focus on a series of core tenets and build its food strategy around them: Safety, stability, palatability, nutrition, resource minimization, variety, reliability and usability. Any food system created will also most likely require new space-ready appliances. 

It appears as though NASA will be juggling a number of different issues. A food system needs to be reliable, obviously, or people may starve, but variety is key for a number of reasons -- not just nutritionally speaking, but for the psychological health of the crew. Food needs to be brought on board, for obvious reasons, but NASA seems to believe that growing food on the ship will also be necessary. Yet, when that happens you sacrifice reliability. What if the food stops growing?

To help solve the problem, NASA is offering a $500,000 reward via its Deep Space Food Challenge. Kicking off in January this year NASA is offering that pile of cash to anyone who can come up with a system that helps navigate all the issues of feeding astronauts for the long haul. 

And like many of the innovations NASA has sponsored over the years, this one could have far-reaching impacts for the humans left on Earth: "Solutions from this challenge could enable new avenues for food production around the world," reads the website, "especially in extreme environments, resource-scarce regions, and in new places like urban areas and in locations where disasters disrupt critical infrastructure."

Any ideas?