The best thing about speculating as to how humanity’s adventure into space might develop is the need for scientific and technological breakthroughs to enable the next big step to be made in space exploration. One could argue that the development of reusable rocketry came just at the right time for the environment and providing cost efficiencies in an industry previously gilded by taxpayer dollars. Suddenly cheap equipment and reusability has opened a floodgate to hundreds of small organisations and research bodies embarking on their own low-cost space activity. Proof if needed that there are a lot of people interested in the potential beyond the atmosphere.
But if we are to get into space and stay there for any meaningful time then there are a few more items on the cargo list that need to be addressed in the same context as other key items like water, oxygen, and metal. Currently everything we eat is shipped into orbit as prepacked food. While I am not insisting that space cuisine is an essential ‘must fix’ we all know how food has an impact on us as individuals and as a species. It is one of the key components of societal interaction, solace, comfort, energy, satisfaction, and contentedness, not necessarily in that order, but each an important aspect that influences how humans behave and respond as well as overall general wellbeing of a person.
While the variety and quality of space food has improved, eventually we will need to become self- sustaining for long distance travel or long-term occupation of alien worlds. Research on regoliths, which are manufactured combinations of soils and minerals available on Earth, primarily collected from Hawaiian volcanoes and the Arizona desert, suggest that with the addition of water and organic matter, cropping would be possible. This is good news for anyone getting to the moon or Mars since both have water and once humans get there a supply of organic matter becomes available too! But the likelihood is that at least one cargo shipment from Earth will need to be organic concentrates to kickstart the growing process for sustainable agriculture, and possibly more shipments depending on how successful the programme is.
So, while some form of self-sustaining agri-industry can be anticipated on the surface of near- neighbours, the parameters are totally different for deep space travel. One can envisage humans surviving on pre-packed food for the 7-month transit to Mars and maybe another 12-month period while an agri-facility is established, but much more than that and food out of a plastic bag will impact on morale, mental wellbeing, and general responsiveness to a harsh environment. On board a spaceship venturing beyond Mars travel times get longer (there and back – we have not yet accepted the one-way ticket culture) we need to be able to provide food that is more appealing than currently. We also need to provide variety and we need it all to still work within a closed loop because nothing can afford to be wasted.
Growing anything in deep space will require a degree of gravity but it is unlikely we are going to see spaceships the size of icebergs anytime in the next 100 years. Forget the dreams of spinning wheels producing G. It will be an achievement to get an off-world manufacturing facility that can make even the basic components for a vessel capable of deep space travel. In fact, the best solution may well be to create an artificial eating environment, where food is served under augmented reality conditions, enabling astronauts to feed the mind at the same time they sustain the body. This sort of solution could also be developed on Earth now and, as far as I am aware, may well be as I type this blog. In which case, Bon Appetit researchers!