One of the coolest things we did at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex was the Astronaut Training Experience. In the Botany Lab of “Mars Base 1,” we planted seeds, discussed what kinds of food would last on Mars, and learned the effects of different colored lights on the growing process.
A trip to Mars is a 3 year mission: 6-9 months travel time, 18 months there, and another 6-9 months to return to Earth. Some food would be sent ahead of a time while some would be grown by astronauts.
A recent New York Times article A Menu for Mars? NASA Plans to Grow Chiles in Space by Sarah Mervosh talks about food on Mars.
Scientists are working on building a garden in space. The goal is to grow fresh produce to supplement existing packaged foods.
NASA has already harvested a variety of edible leafy greens, grown without earthly gravity or natural light. Soon, researchers plan to expand to a more difficult crop, Española improved chiles, in their quest to answer one of the most pressing questions of a Mars mission: How will astronauts get enough nutritious food to survive years in the unforgiving depths of space?
Scientists believe the project, if successful, could open the door to growing similar crops in space — think tomato plants and strawberries — and perhaps eventually to more advanced foods, like potatoes.
“This is the most complex crop we have done to date for food purposes,” said Matthew W. Romeyn, who is leading the pepper experiment for NASA.
The peppers are being tested on Earth, he said, and could be sent to space as early as next spring.
Scott Kelly, a retired astronaut who set an American record in 2016 when he returned after spending 340 days in space, said he received a shipment of fresh fruit and vegetables every few months while on the International Space Station. But that would not be possible on a trip to Mars.
“It’s not like you can just run out to the store,” he said. “To have fresh food, it helps with nutrition. It also helps with morale.”
No matter how many options there are, packaged food alone would not be enough to fuel a mission to Mars.
Certain vitamins break down over time, leaving astronauts at risk of inadequate nutrition, said Gioia D. Massa, a scientist who works on space crop production for NASA.
“We don’t really have a food system that we are confident will be good for the entire duration of a Mars mission,” she said. “We feel plants are a very good way to help solve that problem.”
More recently, NASA harvested red romaine lettuce, which had been nurtured under the purplish, LED lighting of a special vegetable garden known simply as “Veggie.”
If this space gardening plan works, scientists say, it could help combat “menu fatigue” among astronauts, who typically lose weight while spending months in space.
Aside from nutrition, gardening has another big benefit.
Maintaining a garden could also serve as a hobby for crew members during monotonous months. “It’s kind of like, why do people like flowers?” Mr. Kelly said. “When you are living in an environment that is very antiseptic or laboratory-like, or on Mars, it would be pretty devoid of life with the exception of you and your crewmates. Having something growing would have a positive psychological effect.”