NASA’s Michele Perchonok oversees food science research designed to boost shelf stability to infinity and beyond.
Like armies, astronauts travel on their stomachs.
And luckily for consumers, the food science research that helps NASA feed astronaut appetites can also have down-to-Earth applications for helping solve both large and small food problems.
Advances in shelf-stable foods designed for longer stints in space, for example, have already been put to practical use in pouch packaging for campers and for disaster relief, says food scientist Michele Perchonok, who has run NASA’s Human Research Program Science Management Office in Houston for the past year.
“Some of our food was used when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005,” she says.
Perchonok works with NASA’s chief scientist and deputy chief to maintain the integrity of scientific research, including food science and more than a dozen other disciplines. She has also managed NASA food science research aimed at enabling astronauts to leave low-Earth orbit–about 300 miles above the planet–to move beyond the International Space Station to the moon, asteroids and Mars.
Feeding a Mars mission
Food research for NASA’s planned Mars mission in the 2030s is focused on extending shelf life for foods from 18 months to five years and developing systems to grow vegetables under low gravity so astronauts could supplement their rations and add vitamins and other nutrients to their meals on Mars.
Because longer shelf life is considered essential to feeding astronauts on lengthy space journeys, Perchonok says NASA’s deep space researchers are looking at how food is processed, how it is packaged, how it is formulated and how it is stored. Two of the newest processes being studied, for example, are pressure assisted thermal sterilization (PATS), where food is preheated to a specific temperature and then processed at high pressure, and microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS), which can dramatically shorten the time needed to process in-package foods.
Food ingredients also could be encapsulated to make them stable for longer periods of time. Even the cold of space could be tapped to extend shelf life, says Perchonok.
“We expect that a combination of all these approaches may be required,” she says. “In addition, the approach will be dependent on the food itself. In other words, we may use all these options to provide a variety of foods.”
Deep space exploration also is expected to eventually involve astronauts growing crops on their space vehicle or on a planet’s surface. Although this work is not a primary responsibility of the NASA food team, Perchonok says NASA food scientists are part of the research effort.
“Most likely, the plants will be grown hydroponically,” she says. “[They] will likely be grown in chambers that have controlled temperature, humidity and lighting. NASA has [already] grown small plants [such as greens and radishes] on the International Space Station, but more for research and not for food.”
Advances in growing foods for space travelers, such as hydroponics technologies, potentially could help boost crop yields on our own Earth in the future too, she adds.
Perchonok joined the space agency in 2000 to tackle the challenge of developing foods for astronauts after spending 16 years creating consumer and cat food products for Quaker Oats and Riviana Foods.
“To be honest, it was one of few jobs in Houston in which I could use my food science education,” she says. “But it also is the most unique and fun job a food scientist could have.”
Perchonok has worked in a variety of food areas at NASA, including managing menu development and crew support for the space shuttle and designing food systems for a program to develop rockets and spacecraft to replace the shuttle and travel to the moon.
[Working at NASA] is the most unique and fun job a food scientist could have.”
Former fighter pilots dominated NASA’s early culture, says Perchonok, but today women play an increasingly important and visible role in food science both inside and outside of NASA.
“I don’t see a lot of attitude differences between men and women in food science today, certainly less than there were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Perchonok. “I think that everyone has either been trained or understands enough to say that there are no differences—that women are just as capable to get the job done as men.”
In fact, she estimates that 80 percent of the contractors reporting to her in the science management office, including food science and other disciplines, are women.
Traditionally women have been attracted to the food science field because they view it as a more appealing field compared with math, chemistry or physics, Perchonok says. She hopes in the future that more women will enter the hard sciences. “Diversity is very important,” she says.
“[Within food sciences,] I expect that more females will become managers, become real influencers in the kinds of food science research or product development or whatever they are doing,” says Perchonok. “They will become the influencers, the strategists [in food science] instead of just the ‘doers’ [as they have been] in the past.”