Home >mint-lounge >features >Space food: Martian potatoes and space ‘idlis’

In Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian, stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s (played by Matt Damon) act of growing potatoes on the red planet is one of his first and most basic acts of survival. The idea of cultivating food on a planet without the atmosphere or water levels needed to do so is nearly as groundbreaking as the first crops that were planted on earth by Neolithic farmers around 9500 BC. A series of complicated scientific calculations and experiments later, when Watney is able to succeed and the first batch of potatoes in his improvised greenhouse sprout little green leaves, there is a sense of exuberant achievement that passed from the screen to the cinema goers. It brought with it the conviction that life on Mars isn’t such an impossible dream after all.

What is interesting is that Watney’s farming attempts were not all that off the mark. Over the last two years, the International Potato Centre, a research facility based in Lima, Peru has been working on a Potato on Mars project, which are a series of experiments to see if potatoes can actually be grown in an atmospheric condition like the one on Mars. To do this, they have created special CubeSat containers which simulate the environment on Mars to see exactly what it would take for these tubers to survive there.

Food has been subject to as much scientific testing as any of the other aspects primal to human survival in space. And the idea of establishing a human colony on Mars in the near future (Space X’s Elon Musk has stated his company is aiming to send the first crewed flight to Mars in as early as 2024) has amped up the pace of research and experimentation in the field. Nasa has launched several projects like the 2014 Veg-01 experiment, which saw scientists successfully attempt space farming in the International Space Station (ISS) by growing lettuce from seeds. The agency has also invested in a company called BeeHex, which has built a 3D printer that will create fresh, customized food for astronauts. Although there have been budget cuts in this realm, the prototype still remains with Nasa and the possibility of fresh pizza on Mars has not been ruled out altogether.

Non-melting Astronaut Ice Cream.
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Non-melting Astronaut Ice Cream.

While pre-packaged foods still form the bulk of nutrition for astronauts, there is plenty of variety in the diet, ranging from heat-and-eat variants of pasta, sushi and even ‘idlis’ that can be rehydrated and consumed. All of this is a far cry from the food available on the early manned space missions which had little to recommend it. While Yuri Gagarin’s meals came out of tubes and his main sustenance was a paste of beef and liver, the second human to orbit earth, Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, also had a similar diet with the addition of soup and blackcurrant juice. In fact, Titov actually vomited up his meal due to a long exposure to weightlessness, adding to a less glamorous list of firsts in space.

The menus on offer also follows the cultural context of the astronauts and there is food research being carried out in nearly every country with ambitions of human space flight programmes. Isro is gearing up for its first manned mission to orbit earth in 2022 (called Gaganyaan) and in keeping with this, the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) in Mysuru is trying to design food to match the requirements of the astronauts on board. There are ready-to-eat idli-sambhar meals, khichdi, biryani, poha, juices and more. K. Radhakrishna, additional director of DFRL, is the man behind the project. The idlis are cooked and dehydrated through infrared radiation while the sambhar and chutney are packed in a powdered form and the whole thing can be rehydrated into a proper meal with little loss of flavour and can last up to a year. He also narrowed down the rasagulla as the perfect sweet ending for space meals. Freeze-dried and packaged with powdered sugar which can become a liquid syrup by adding water, this is yet another reason for Bengal to celebrate its favourite and newly GI-tagged sweet. Apart from the actual food, the DFRL is also developing edible crockery and cutlery to reduce wastage in space.

While an extra-planetary grocery store or farm might still be the stuff of lab experiments, what does exist is space ice cream and one that you can eat on earth. Freeze- dried astronaut ice cream can be ordered online on Amazon. Typically available in a block that combines layers of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavours, the three-in-one combination probably tastes of childhood nostalgia. The novelty: it doesn’t melt at room temperature.

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