The food industry and NASA share mutual goals in producing higher quality, more nutritious foods, and lessons learned on both sides could ultimately help feed astronauts on missions to Mars and beyond, says a scientist working on NASA's advanced food technology project.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the recent IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo in New Orleans, Dr Michele Perchonok, project scientist, Advanced Food Technology for NASA explained that, although the food industry is not interested in products with a five year shelf life, emerging technology can enhance the quality and nutritional content of their products.
"We're looking at new processing method - microwave sterilization, pressure-assisted thermal sterilization. We believe, based on what we're seeing in the development of these processes, that the quality of the food starts out much higher," said Dr Perchonok.
The flow of information could also be two-way, with potential for the food industry to work with NASA in achieving the goals of improved food quality, she said.
"If they [the food industry] can find methods to provide a higher quality, a more nutritious product, a healthier product, I think that we can work together in that respect."
So will we get there?
NASA is transitioning away from short-term shuttle flights to exploring the potential of longer duration missions, perhaps to Mars. But providing astronauts with food of sufficient quantity, quality, and variety is an enormous challenge for the agency's food scientists.
"I hope we get foods that last five years," said Dr Perchonok, an 11 year NASA food science veteran. "If we go to Mars it's a two and a half year mission, and already with a six month mission on the international space station our current variety of about 180 food items is about the right amount of variety.
"However we do know from crew members that have been on the international space station twice that they do get tired of those foods after about six weeks of their second mission, so we know we're going to need at least 180 items, they cannot be eating the same 20 items for two years, so we're going to have to find that five year shelf life," she added.