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What Will We Feed the Martians?

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Mars | Photo: FlyingSinger/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you watched all the news coverage about the space rover Curiosity landing on the surface of Mars over the weekend -- coverage that can be neatly summarized by the word "awesome," and this dramatic video from NASA themselves -- then you couldn't help but spend some time dreaming up the implications of what such an event means for humans as a species.

Is this the start of humans colonizing the rest of the solar system? Is every Mars-based sci-fi story about to become a reality? Are we going to put some kind of base on Mars just like in the original "Total Recall"? And if we do, is it somehow going to be populated by women with three breasts? Important questions, all. (Especially that last one.) But one of the most vital ones being asked today is actually one of the simplest: When we go up there, what are we going to eat?

(If you were one of the wise-asses who just said "Mars bar" aloud to their computer screen, go ahead and show yourself the door for being a disgrace.)

Luckily, there are food detectives on the case. Enter: NASA's Advanced Food Technology Project who, according to their own description, are responsible for providing meals that are "safe, nutritious and acceptable" to the crew.

In laymen's terms, what that means is they don't want astronauts landing on the surface of Mars and being too fat to fit into their spacesuits because they've been on a college-esque diet of chips and Mountain Dew for four months. At the same time, they don't want to stuff the guys and gals with the same old boring food three times a day, as being cramped in a small area with way too many other people for an extended period of time is already enough to frazzle one's nerves. It's a fine line of nutrition and not-tasting-like-cardboard that must be navigated. But in many ways, it's a project that's as essential as the various technological components that go into the propulsion system, or even the actual landing of Curiosity: Without food, all that tech is wasted.

MSNBC.com has a great profile about the project, specifically their mindset as they work on creating an interstellar menu in time for the first humans to head off to the Red Planet. (Which, if all goes according to plan, should be sometime in the 2030s.) The scientists are cooking, mixing, taste-testing, calculating, and on and on. But, because they're getting paid the big bucks, are also thinking a bit outside of the astronaut-ice-cream-and-freeze-dried-Salisbury-steak box; they're actually working on an idea that can ultimately change the course of humankind:

One option Cooper and her staff are considering is having the astronauts care for a "Martian greenhouse." They would have a variety of fruits and vegetables - from carrots to bell peppers - in a hydroponic solution, meaning they would be planted in mineral-laced water instead of soil. The astronauts would care for their garden and then use those ingredients, combined with others, such as nuts and spices brought from Earth, to prepare their meals.

In other words: A garden on Mars. How's that for some sweet, sweet science?

The whole program's not cheap -- about $1 million is spent annually on getting the Mars menu in working order -- but it's worth it. If only for the day, long in the future, when "growing local" means merely that it's been grown on the Earth.

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