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Explorers always expect all kinds of monsters in unknown territory, and NASA was no different when venturing into space for the first time. How would zero gravity affect eating? Would we choke? What should we eat and how? Image of Tina putting the problem to a test.

Mars ho! Peas in space (food)

Published on:
July 13th 2007

Food is one of the last items on any newbie's to-do list, and one of the first matters of importance to any veteran explorer. One gang Atlantic crossing guys partied so hard in the Marina they ran out of prep time. Finally, they sailed off with numerous cases of beer, while for food: they brought only mega boxes of breakfast cereals from the local supermarket. "Let's fish!" they agreed.

Anyone who has done an Atlantic crossing will tell you that if you catch even one Dorado these days - you're either a pro or plain lucky. Although barely; the troopers did survive their three week-long passage.

A recipe for disaster

On our first Everest trip, we went with a low budget British expedition. The Sherpa cooks experimented wildly to imitate British cuisine; bringing down the very deathzone to BC. Before we could even try for camp 4; we were headed home looking like we had soloed Annapurna.

Noticing that our sleds were too heavy on our newbie South Pole expedition - we threw out food first. As a result, like savage animals we soon scoured the tent floor for food scraps and finally stopped short of the pole. Lucky for us opposite to Scott, these days planes are around to save sorry asses like ours.

Wave-hopping in a storm out on the Atlantic in a boat that shouldn't be there prepared us early for eating and cooking in weightlessness: Peas are a bad food choice and so is stir-fry. In zero gravity you need compact, heavy grub that sticks nicely to your pot.

A Borneo crossing taught us that instant noodles need no cooking but can be munched as snacks straight out of the package (college folks already know that but this was a long time ago, kids!).

A hike in the Golden Triangle converted us to thinking that canned sardines in tomato sauce mixed with boiled rice can be pretty tasty. Our early (1985) trek to Everest BC north side proved that 3 cans of pineapple is not enough for a week-long adventure on altitude, while 2 cartons of Marlboro is plenty. Everest North side was a different story back then and we survived our trek to Chomalongma on the boiled eggs and onions that Tibetan herders traded for our hats.

The list continues of expeditions that taught us the hard way that man can not survive on tubes of Pringles alone.

Extreme Chefs

To extreme explorers, expedition food is rocket science and they die like flies in their experiments. People try seal fat on climbing; they suck chemicals out of tubes, play Russian roulette with reef fish, eat cheese only, chew on synthetics packaged in healthy-looking wraps, or bring no food at all.

Dented food jars can become violently toxic and have wasted a number of sailors. Altitude could easily kill if your diet is too fat. Polar skiers without the right food will stop in their tracks. Even stuff like too little fiber in the food has felled more than one Himalayan climber.

And then there are the minor annoyances: Water won't get hot enough to be safe above 7500 meters; uncooked oil that some polar folks pour over dinners causes diarrhea, and in general - food poisoning is one of the leading causes to aborted high altitude summit pushes.

What mama always told us

Our own experience brought us back to what mama always told us - "don't play with your food." Our Everest summit arrived thanks to original Sherpa cuisine in BC - hearty stews of veggies, potatoes and meat. We learned proper meat handling the local way: Bring it fresh but hold when it starts to smell. When the odor stops - the meat is OK to carve at again.

A lot of garlic, plain water and a daily aspirin effectively thins blood and prevents everything from AMS to frostbite.

Victory on the poles came with carefully chosen food; freeze dried without added transfats or synthetics - and supplemented with real butter, bacon, and parmesan cheese. A large variety of spice and taste did the trick along with dried veggies and fruits.

Ocean voyages taught us how to store fresh food such as egg in a wildly rocking vessel without a fridge. And these days, when we go on hikes in Colorado - we bring a 'Sherpa lunch': A pinch of salt, a boiled egg, a piece of salami and a chunk of bread in a zip lock bag.

To wrap it up - food 'out there' is best pre-packaged for rough going, unprocessed, varied - and tasty; if you don't like it at home you'll like it even less under stress. There's a reason why the world's best explorers spend so much time on the subject: The last man standing was often the last man eating.

Food in zero gravity

Space travel brings a combination of problems known to all-round explorers. If we travel in zero gravity, we might have to pressurize our cabin to altitude - bringing on the very medical problems of mountaineering. Mission weight restrictions will limit whole food much like an unsupported polar expedition does. Our rocket might get humid and hot - calling for food that won't rot or mold. If traveling on a shoestring; crammed quarters will call for compact packaging that must survive pressure, acceleration, and vibration of the launch. If you ever unpacked food carried to BC by yaks - you get the picture.

If we must recycle our urine - our tolerance to it will depend on the quality of food we consume.

Our mission will last three years with the meals being our biggest comfort. So we must find food that's easy to prepare, not messy, can be eaten in a fairly decent manner (sucking on plastic bags gets old really fast), and is tasty, varied, lightweight, clean and nutritious.

Exploring space food

Explorers always expect all kinds of monsters in unknown territory, and NASA was no different when venturing into space the first time. How would zero gravity affect eating? Would we choke? What should we eat and how?

Yet as often happens when man conquers his fears; space turned out a pretty gentle place. Eating out of pouches and drinking from straws showed a fairly simple task. Instead, the human intervention was the crux - Astronauts complained that the food was processed in funky ways.

Soon though, folks in Skylab would enjoy their meals strapped to a table, sitting in mid air, munching on airline style food coated with edible gelatin to prevent crumbling. "Spoon-bowl" packages were covered with plastic membranes and drinks came in collapsible bottles.

The early guys even had delicacies such as filet Mignon and ice cream - but that party was over when Skylab's fridge and freezer were thrown out in the plans for the upcoming ISS.

Current food in space

On the current space station, an oven allows food to be heated at 67C (154 F). Calorie requirements vary from 1,900 - 3,200 calories a day per person, with an average of 2,800. To provide proper balance, 16 to 17 percent of the menu consist of protein, 30 to 32 percent fat, and 50 to 54 percent carbohydrate.

Much like on low-budget commercial expeditions in Himalaya, people on ISS go at the real food first - leaving deserts of powdered chocolate pudding to their next kin of man.

To the dismay of unsupported polar expeditions, polar guys with 'air-support' get fresh food with each delivery. The Astronauts on ISS likewise get a break with whole fruit, chicken, beef, and even seafood brought there by the Soyuz once in a while - all impossible on long, unsupported missions.

Today, while salt and pepper are available only in a liquid form, the Astronauts on ISS eat and drink just about everything (and there is a space bar in the Russian section, ask us how we know).

Extended missions

While people have stayed for extended times in the fairly comfortable space stations, rocket flights have only lasted for a few weeks and so we still don't know how to handle extended missions. Apollo flights took nine days allowing short shelf-life items such as fresh breads and cheese.

Shuttle missions can last up to 30 days. A galley has been installed on the mid-deck, featuring hot and cold water dispensers, a pantry, an air convection oven, food serving trays, a personal hygiene station, a water heater, and storage areas. The food is dried; water (from fuel cells) is inserted by a needle. The food is held in place with springs and Velcro fasteners; the tray secured to the leg during work. Dishes are done with another friend of earth explorers; wet wipes.

The Menu

Astronauts complain that freeze dried foods are not satisfying. Some of the stuff in the wilderness stores is horrid for sure, but we have found other freeze dried foods out there and they are sheer delicacy. It all comes down to the chef!

The proper food and variation in seasonings, proteins and starches guarantee not only a well balanced diet - but also lack of food cravings - no matter what form the food comes in, we've noticed.

Without tiring, we lived on the same breakfast but 8 different dinners for almost 6 straight months in the polar areas. The crux is to try everything before hand and leave only with the tastiest stuff.

Properly freeze dried food is the purest you can get. It offers all kinds of choices including meat and mushrooms. It doesn't spoil easily, it's lightweight and cooks fast. A tightly zipped up 'dining tent' with a vacuum device could prevent crumbles from jamming the flight instruments - if needed at all - as rehydrated freeze-dried food is both chunky and 'sticky'. On our Mars mission - we'll bring freeze-dried in 3 breakfast, 7 lunch and 14 dinner varieties - along with cans for special occasions.

The bleak microwave oven seems a problem though - we will crave 'fried' stuff. On the Arctic, we 'grilled' jerky and salami on the flame and that kept the fried chicken away. On our Mars mission, we might have to experiment with 'panini-style' magnetized pan and lid to get the right crunch and smell...

The weight

On unsupported polar expeditions, we carefully inspect every single food item for their energy/weight ratio in order to save weight on our sleds. The difference can be huge.

Fat such as butter packs up to 800 kcal per 100 grams. That means that a small woman would need to bring only 200 grams of food to meet her 1600 kcal requirement. On a 1000-days mission - that's only 200 kg (400lbs) of food!

An apple on the other hand will only deliver a meager 50 calories (kcal) per 100 grams. All of a sudden the above 200 grams of food will starve the lady - providing her only 100 calories. If she still wanted to bring 1600 kcal - she'd have to pack her rocket with 16 times that: Or 3200 kgs (7000 lbs) of apples!

With the current launch cost of $10' K per pound, a difference between 200 and 3200 kgs of food translates to a difference in household budget of either 4 or 70 (!) million US dollars.

Calories in space

Eating only fat is dangerous though; the best ratio seems to be food containing 350kcal/100 gr in dried form. But how much will we need?

Physical training will be essential, to maintain muscle mass and bone density in space. Although he experienced a variety of other problems after 6 months in space; NASA Astronaut Don Pettit told us that he actually returned to earth in a better physical shape - thanks to the rigorous training he did up there.

So here goes our schedule:

Sleeping: 8 hours
Training: 4 hours
Other: 12 hours

Calorie requirements are dependent on age, sex, activity, and weight. To keep our requirements down; we better leave lean - or at the weight we had at 18 years old. We hear you screaming now, but doctors actually recommend that people keep this weight throughout their lives!

At 55 years old (in 2014), Tom must thus weigh 70 kg and Tina 53.

With our daily routine as of above, Tom will need 2400 kcal/day, while Tina will need 1635 kcal/day.

Final countdown

But what about the calorie restricted diets, where people survive down to 1200 kcal per day? Although supposedly life extending; these diets come at a cost: People become depressed and that's the last thing we need on our Mars mission. Better do what mama told us.

The above math and routine brings us to 4000 calories per day, together. Dry food at 350cal/100 gr will leave us with 1.15kg/day or 1200kg in total for the mission.

The food should be vacuum packaged, and separated in containers (that's right folks - good old expedition barrels :) to minimize breakage and contamination. The packaging, weighing about 100 gr/day and 70 Containers, each holding 2 weeks worth of food will put as at a total of about 1400 kg.

Add 100 kg of canned treats and we end up with a total mission weight for food of about 1500 kg. Add water, 1000 liters (previous story) and we have hit 2500 kg in payload on our Mission to Mars.

Next: Oxygen.

ExplorersWeb founders, US residents Tom and Tina Sjogren are planning a private mission to Mars. The expedition preparations have a hands-on, simple exploration approach and are openly disclosed.

Tina Sjogren
Tina Sjogren
CEO & Founder
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"It was disorienting, the brain had a hard time processing the sudden upside-down reality of eating. It was awkward holding the cup up while directing the fork to mouth in this position; the banana fell out and it was scary to swallow at first. I didn't choke but by instinct I took small bites and swallowed carefully," Tina reports.

OK so maybe we overdid our experiment. In the image - NASA Astronaut munching dinner with chop sticks at the International Space Station.