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Home-Cooked Meals, Comfy Chairs and Netflix on Mars? It Could Happen

Getting to the Red Planet is only half the battle: Experts say that staying happy and comfortable there is also a serious challenge.
/ Source: NBC News

There is no Ikea on Mars. There are no takeout joints or Internet cafes either. Getting to the Red Planet might be half the battle, but staying happy and comfortable there is also a serious challenge.

Earlier this week, NASA announced it was offering $5,000 for the best ideas on how to improve social interaction, exercise, food and other necessities on a future Mars base.

Stuck on a cold, barren planet with the same four to six people for two years, little things like home-cooked meals and emails from family members could be vital to keeping astronauts productive.

"Our experience is that people really start to care about that stuff," Kim Binsted told NBC News. She is the principal investigator on the current Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission, which looks at how people react to being stuck in a tiny habitat for months at a time.

Food matters. Comfort matters. Being connected to the Internet matters. So how do we make those things work for people who will be on average 141 million miles away?

The Internet of Mars

Netflix on Mars? It's possible. And the key is using lasers.

"Those astronauts, for their psychological well-being, would probably like to see some HD video from home," Don Cornwell, director of NASA's Space Communications and Navigation Program, told NBC News.

In 2013, his team proved that lasers could be used instead of radio waves to transmit data almost a quarter of a million miles to the moon. Such a technology allows for a lot of data — more than 600 megabits per second, the equivalent of 30 HD TV channels — to be sent back to Earth.

More importantly, it allows for high upload speeds. With the radio-frequency communications used now, only simple commands can be sent past low Earth orbit, enough to give a rover directions but not much else. The laser demonstration showed that 20 megabits per second could be beamed up to the moon. That could easily handle streaming "Game of Thrones" or a broadcast of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.

For astronauts spending months on a cold, lifeless planet, that is no small deal. Messages from family, sports broadcasts and more could help stave off feelings of isolation.

The problem is that sending data to Mars will be about a million times more difficult than sending data to the moon — which was about a million times more difficult than sending data to orbiting satellites, said Cornwell.

In 2020, NASA is scheduled to launch a similar test to Mars orbit that could achieve download speeds of 250 megabits per second and upload speeds of a few kilobits per second. It's not quite fast enough for Netflix — but there won't be astronauts on Mars by then anyway, so NASA has time to improve its technology.

The hope is for the future inhabitants of Mars to be able to watch YouTube, browse family photos on social media and more. (But no video-chatting on Skype, sadly. Even lasers can't transmit faster than the speed of light, meaning that signals would take eight to 46 minutes to go from Mars to Earth and back to Mars.)

Some of that bandwidth will be committed to scientific data. But don't be surprised if the astronauts get plenty of it for their own personal use.

"I think the astronauts would be very powerful in negotiating that," Cornwell said. "If they were going to spend two years away on a mission, I would think they would have a lot of leverage when it comes to staying connected."

Space Furniture

Compared to rockets and rovers, a table and chair don't seem too complicated. But on Mars, where gravity is around 62 percent lower than on Earth, it's not that simple.

A gentle nudge could send a coffee cup flying off a table. Leaning too far could cause people on Mars to tumble out of their chairs.

"Nobody has really put too much effort into researching the effects of partial gravity on everyday things like furniture," Alex Schmidt, a Rice University engineering student, told NBC News.

Less than two weeks ago, Schmidt and his team unveiled their own designs for a Mars-ready table and chair.

They thought about adding bumpers to the table, but instead covered it with a high-friction neoprene that keeps items in place. They made the chair to be easily adjustable so that its occupant's feet are always on the ground, which turns out to be enough to ensure they won't fall out. The table's height can also be adjusted.

Furniture on Mars needs to serve multiple purposes. A table can't just be a table — it needs to serve as a normal desk, a work table for people to stand around, and a place to eat dinner. There just isn't enough room on a spaceship or tiny habitat to store multiple pieces of furniture or even spare parts.

It also needs to be light. Right now, it costs NASA around $10,000 to send a pound of cargo into Earth's orbit. Those costs could go down by the time a manned mission to Mars takes place. Still, keeping the furniture's weight down was a top priority for the Rice team.

They were helped by the fact that lower gravity means less strength is needed to keep furniture from collapsing. High-grade aluminum and the same memory foam used in professional race cars were used to build the chair, which when broken down can fit into a 2-by-2-foot square box.

The furniture was also designed with ease of assembly in mind, including color coding and parts that only fit into each other. (Unlike with Ikea furniture, astronauts can't order replacement parts if they break a chair — although they may be able to make them on a 3-D printer someday.)

The furniture might not be found in hip Soho lofts anytime soon, but the team did consider aesthetics.

"We asked ourselves, 'If you were trapped on a habitat for six months, would you mind looking at it?'" Schmidt said. "We definitely tried to make it look nice."

Cooking on Another Planet

On Mars, you can't order pad thai from down the street. Food will have to last through takeoff, the entire Mars mission, and the trip back. That requires a shelf life of at least four years — even more if NASA decides to send up the food and habitat ahead of time.

The first people on Mars will almost certainly have the prepackaged meals that astronauts eat today on the International Space Station. Chances are they will also spend time in the kitchen.

"If you have pre-prepared lasagna, it's always going to be lasagna," Binsted told NBC News. "But if you have noodles, tomato powder, freeze-dried cheese and freeze-dried meat, they can be combined in a bunch of different ways."

Not only would shipping up ingredients in bulk let astronauts create more variety in their diets, she said, it would also weigh less because of reduced packaging.

A previous HI-SEAS study found that volunteers far preferred food that was cooked over prepackaged meals. Over a four-month period, they discovered quite a few favorite dishes, including Moroccan beef tagine, filled with freeze-dried beef, dehydrated bell peppers and a healthy pinch of cumin.

Like most people, the HI-SEAS volunteers also liked a little variety in their diets. That's important because astronauts on extended space missions are at risk of losing bone and muscle mass, something that could hamper their ability to do their jobs. The nutrients that astronauts get from a varied diet will be essential to keeping them healthy.

Another reason why cooking on Mars is a good idea? The astronauts will have very rigid schedules with very little opportunity for creativity, making the kitchen a space to break from the routine. It will also give them something to look forward to.

"Early explorers in Antarctica, even if they were just eating seal meat, took every opportunity to celebrate special events," Binsted said.

Not that a Mars habitat will be a four-star restaurant. Fried chicken is out of the question: Splattering oil in a low-gravity environment can be messy business, and any kind of fire is strictly off limits. But the HI-SEAS test subjects tried out plenty of appetizing dishes ranging from breakfast sandwiches to chocolate desserts.

There are also negatives to cooking from scratch: Anyone who has zapped a microwavable burrito at the end of the day knows that sometimes people just don't have the energy or time to cook. And while bulk ingredients might weigh less, they require heavy equipment to cook and other gear to ventilate the habitat.

In the end, the solution could be a mix of prepackaged meals, ingredients for cooking and even material for astronauts to grow their own food.

This week, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said the agency was on track to put someone on Mars in the 2030s. Hopefully they will be able to sit back in their memory foam chair, dig into a bowl of Moroccan beef tagine, and read this article with their speedy Internet connection.