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Cool Job: Creating a Menu for Mars
From a cuisine standpoint, a mission to the red planet—estimated to take three years, much longer than the typical one- or two-week trip to the moon—poses unique challenges. Most of the prepackaged foods on which astronauts have long relied can spoil in half that time. Cooper, who studied chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, helped develop organic snacks for Frito-Lay before becoming a contractor for NASA. There, she researches the costs, benefits and risks of extraterrestrial farms on which astronauts may someday grow food during extended exploratory missions.
Of course, you can't grow just anything on Mars. Soybeans and spinach can sprout hydroponically (i.e., in water), while citrus fruits—which require more space and light—will be a no-go. There are no plans to raise animals either, so Cooper's experimental fare is vegetarian. Possible space-farm-to-table menus include the tofu she recently made from raw soybeans and the home-style pancakes she cooked with an electric griddle (open flames are too risky and use too much oxygen). "We don't want the astronauts to feel like they're doing a science experiment," says Cooper. "From a psychological perspective, you want cooking to be as normal an experience as possible." She often asks meat-loving colleagues to taste-test recipes like soy meatballs, which they rejected four times until she revised the recipe to their satisfaction. Her tofu and soy-milk chocolate ice cream, on the other hand, was an instant hit. Some might even say out of this world.
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