What’s on the menu for Mars-bound astronauts?

While we have a pretty good idea what the first humans will eat on Mars, we're a little less certain about what their meals will look like on the way there. Alas, because there are no drive-throughs between Earth and the red planet, food scientists are having to come up with innovative, healthy, and tasty food options that will feed six to eight astronauts as they make their half-year journey. Thankfully, NASA has started to work on a menu.

Writing for AP BigStory, Ramit Plushnick-Masti describes the work being done by research scientists at Lockheed Martin who are preparing for the journey, which is scheduled for the 2030s.

Unlike the constantly resupplied space station, astronauts bound for Mars will need to pack all their stuff upfront — including their food. And given that the entire mission could last four to five years, the food scientists need to make sure the food is up to snuff.

Plushnick-Masti writes:

The top priority is to ensure that the astronauts get the proper amount of nutrients, calories and minerals to maintain their physical health and performance for the life of the mission, [food scientist Maya] Cooper said.

The menu must also ensure the psychological health of the astronauts, Cooper explained, noting studies have shown that eating certain foods - such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes or turkey on Thanksgiving - improve people's mood and give them satisfaction. That "link to home" will be key to astronauts on the Mars mission, and there are currently two academic studies looking further into the connection between mood and food. Lacking certain vitamins or minerals can also harm the brain, she said.

Already, Cooper's team of three has come up with about 100 recipes, all vegetarian because the astronauts will not have dairy or meat products available. It isn't possible to preserve those products long enough to take to Mars - and bringing a cow on the mission is not an option, Cooper jokes.

To make sure the astronauts get enough protein, the scientists are experimenting with dishes comprised of tofu, nuts, and even a Thai cheeseless pizza covered in carrots, red peppers, mushrooms, scallions, peanuts, and a homemade spicy sauce.

And given the importance of all this, NASA is seriously considering dedicating one of its crew members to the preparation of these dishes.

Be sure to read Plushnick-Masti's entire article, which also describes how the food will be made to last five years, and how recent budget cuts could undermine this work.

Image via Bigstock.com/shmeljov.