If you’re like me, you have dreams of one day launching into space and landing on Mars, but at the same time, you can’t bear to part with the culinary delicacies Earth has to offer. So what will future Mars astronauts and space colonists eat? 

Let’s first consider what astronauts currently enjoy on the ISS. Almost everything they eat is either freeze-dried or thermostabilized (preheated to kill any germs) to not spoil over long periods of time, but within these constraints, NASA’s food scientists do a pretty good job of creating a varied menu that tastes like food from home. 

Tortillas are apparently really popular on the ISS as a less crumbly alternative to bread. Image credit: NASA

However, the ISS is constantly resupplied by cargo deliveries, making it easy to keep astronauts happy, and crews of different nationalities even enjoy swapping food from their respective space agencies to add some variety (like trading lunches in the school cafeteria)! 

It may seem trivial, but good food provides a big psychological boost, and astronaut mental health will be crucial given the isolation of a long-term mission to Mars. Without constant resupply, food will need a shelf life of several years, pushing the limits of what NASA currently can provide. Plus excessive thermostabilization degrades both nutritional quality and taste, and even with the best freeze drying, key vitamins start to break down over time. This begs the question of an interesting alternative – what if the astronauts’ food didn’t have to always come from Earth? Would it be feasible to grow fruits and vegetables in space?

Yes, this is a real photo of a grocery store advertising their potatoes. Image credit: Adweek

Maybe this sounds more like science fiction; could anyone really live like poor Mark Watney from The Martian, eating potatoes fertilized with his own poop for years while stranded on Mars alone? Actually, NASA and scientists around the world have put serious effort into learning how to grow plants in space. The first plants to bloom in space were grown on the Soviet Salyut 7 station in 1982, and early experiments identified some challenges: plant roots struggle without gravity to direct them, and distributing water to the roots is difficult since liquid droplets tend to glob together and float around freely. 

Nowadays, astronauts on the ISS maintain their orbital gardens using the VEGGIE plant growth system, and in 2015 they ate the first produce ever grown in space – red romaine lettuce.  All the while we keep learning more about plants in zero-G! Two of the leading experts in astrobotany, Professors Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl of the University of Florida’s Space Plants Lab, led a study demonstrating changes in the genetic expression of plants growing on the ISS – certain genes related to cell wall production switched on and off for reasons we don’t fully understand. As Paul explains, “when living organisms are faced with environmental change, their response almost always involves a change in genetic expression.” It makes sense plants in space would do the same thing. 

Cabbage growing in a VEGGIE unit on the ISS. Image credit: NASA

Apart from the ISS, China’s Chang’e 4 mission made headlines for landing its Lunar Micro Ecosystem experiment containing fruit fly eggs and a number of seeds on the far side of the moon, some of which sprouted. Clearly, the United States is not alone in one day trying to establish a sustainable human presence in space.

Cottonseed sprouts contained within Chang’e 4 on the far side of the moon. Image credit: CNSA

As Ferl states, “plants, just like here on Earth, ultimately will be the source of food, water, and air when we live on Mars. We have to take our ecosystems and our agriculture with us.” Our mastery of space depends on our mastery of astrobotany.

Let’s grow plants in space.

This article was written by Hans Uy, a New York investment banker and astrobotany colleague who talks about space exploration on his own terms on his awesome website: Astronomical Returns