As a parent and perpetual child myself, I always keep up-to-date on all the latest macaroni and cheese news. Like, did you know that the Twin Cities Pioneer Press named Velveeta Shells and Cheese the best store-bought mac and cheese? Or that Kraft now has unicorn-shaped mac and cheese!? Needless to say, this is all pretty fascinating stuff, but some truly out-of-this-world mac and cheese news hit just a few days ago, with one headline reading, “Getting Mac and Cheese to Mars.” Dang!
Basically, some scientists at Washington State University have developed a way to triple the shelf life of macaroni and cheese. At first — to be honest — I wasn’t all that impressed: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese already has a shelf life of infinity, which will make it the holy grail of grocery store looting once the zombie apocalypse comes. But as I read on, the news explained that this is for ready-to-eat mac and cheese, which requires no boiling or milk or anything.
Designed for space travel and military use, this new mac and cheese is sterilized and stored in plastic, so that it may be microwaved later. Also, by adding a layer of metal oxide (which is microwavable) to the plastic, it significantly increases the amount of time it takes for oxygen to reach the food — as that’s what spoils it — explains Shyam Sablani, a professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University and the head of the study. While the addition of metal oxide has been around for a while, Sablani and his team added several layers of different kinds of plastic to further extend the shelf life. The end result: a ready-to-eat mac and cheese that lasts for three years at room temperature as opposed to just one.
According to the article on Phys.org, “In taste panels conducted by the Army, the mac and cheese, recently tested after three years of storage, was deemed just as good as the previous version that was stored for nine months.” Which seems like damning with faint praise, really. Because come on, how does it actually taste? Especially for those of us who aren’t in the army or military and spend our evenings in our living rooms watching My Little Pony with their kids? Well, Sablani says he feels it’s “comparable” to store-bought mac and cheese, but while I admire the work he’s doing for our military and our astronauts, I do have my doubts about the taste, if only because it comes out of a pouch and, well, space food has a reputation for being notoriously lousy.
To look into the subject of space food even further, I reached out to Philip Sadler, from the Department of Astronomy at Harvard, who explained that presently, “astronauts have food that is freeze dried, and then they inject hot water into a little green pouch so you have a hot meal. But they don’t have a stove up there, and they just got a little ice box for ice cream.” While the food has come a long way since the days of John Glenn, astronauts are still eating food out of pouches and rehydrating certain meals — mac and cheese, to pull an example out of a, well, pouch. “The food’s not that great,” Sadler admits. “The astronauts always lose weight up there.”
“They especially like spicy foods,” Sadler continues. “Space does something to your taste buds and you can’t taste things like you do down on Earth, so they like spicy foods because they can really taste them.” And while real(er) ice cream was a nice new addition to an astronaut’s menu as of 2017, there have also been advances in food being grown in space. Sadler explains that while things have been grown in space for years as a means of research, they’re now growing things like lettuce and other vegetables. While the food itself isn’t that exciting, a little fresh lettuce along with some freeze-dried, rehydrated chili is a nice addition.
There was also this story from just a few days ago about astronauts 3D printing meat, but that hardly makes one’s mouth water. Sadler says that maybe someday we’ll have greenhouses on Mars where we can grow our own food like Matt Damon in The Martian, but cautions that, while it’s difficult to say exactly how long that will be, it’s still probably 300 or so years in the future.
Despite advances, then, space food still royally sucks and will for at least a few more centuries, which raises a larger question: Is this all really worth it? Now, I’m glad Sablani and his team are working on food preservation, that’s great, but I’m talking about space travel in general. Is going to Mars and the far reaches of space really worth it if we’re sucking ready-to-eat mac and cheese out of a pouch? Is that what we dreamed of during the heyday of the space race? Especially since the Twin Cities Pioneer Press tells us that we already have the perfect mac and cheese right here on Earth?
To really weigh this big question, I decided to turn to Amy Zalman, prominent futurist and CEO of the company Prescient. I wanted to ask someone with an optimistic, forward-thinking view of the future whether or not all of this was worth the trouble, and in short, Zalman says that it all depends on the type of person you are. “We have virtual reality now, and for some, that may be enough. It’s a bit clunky right now, but it will get better, and some may be content to sit in their den and experience space that way,” Zalman explains. In other words, for a swath of the population who can’t go a week without their hard shell tacos and Pokémon cards, no, it probably isn’t worth it to go to space without the conveniences of Earth.
On the other hand, some people would gladly choke down some gross space food if it offered a chance at discovery. “I was willing to be hailed on for an entire day in England this summer just to say I climbed Mount Helvellyn,” Zalman says, explaining that for some, not only is it okay that we have to make sacrifices for the sake of adventure, but it’s actually part of the experience.
She has a point: Getting to the top of Mount Everest won’t be quite so exciting if they install an escalator to the top. The degradation, the frostbite, the running out of oxygen — all that shit that you have to go through is part of the story and it only enhances the experience. So while some may not be willing to give up their delicious Velveeta Shells and Cheese for the sake of discovery — looking at you, entire editorial staff of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press — many of us would do so gladly. At least, as long as we knew there was a warm bowl of that stuff waiting for us when we got back home.