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Chapter 15: “Soybeans - they’re not just for breakfast anymore!”
September 2005

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Clayton AndersonImage at left: Astronaut Clayton Anderson signs autographs for visitors at the Iowa State Fair. Image credit: NASA

This summer I had the opportunity to do a Public Appearance back in the Midwest. The appearance, requested by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), occurred in Des Moines, Iowa as part of the Iowa State Fair. My gracious hosts from the ISA wanted me to come speak to the fine folks attending the Fair about my experiences as an astronaut, with an emphasis on the NASA Vision (heading back to the Moon and on to Mars) and the use of soybeans as a food staple in outer space. While speaking at the fair, I was very fortunate to be able to share the “stage” with two good friends who are also experts in the field of space food and nutrition. These gentlemen, Drs. Tony Pometto (Director of Iowa State University's (ISU) NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center) and Lester Wilson (Professor of food science and human nutrition at ISU) were my “partners in crime” as we dazzled (my word, not theirs!) the State Fair audience “hungry” for space talk!

So, how do those pesky soybeans fit in exactly? Well, in order to know that we must understand that the NASA Vision (recently set forth by President Bush) is quite bold and calls for us to:

  1. Return the Shuttle to flight.
  2. Complete the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).
  3. Return to the Moon.
  4. Pursue the human exploration of Mars.
The extremely successful launch and landing of the Space Shuttle Discovery and her STS-114 crew has us on the way to being able to complete the first two parts of the President’s plan. In parallel, NASA experts are already working on concepts which will allow us to return to the Moon and send humans to Mars.

Photograph of a soybean plant grown in space.Image at right: Photograph of a soybean plant grown in space. Image credit: NASA

Establishing human settlements on the surface of the Moon or Mars is a formidable task indeed. Traveling to and living on the Moon or Mars will require us to figure out ways to do things “in situ” or “at the site” as the distances and travel time involved are such that we want to minimize what we have to carry with us. The size and mass of our cargo drives the design of the spacecraft and its systems (e.g., propulsion, life support). Ways to “manufacture” necessities like food, water, oxygen and fuel for the trip are paramount so that we don’t have to bring it along. Growing our own produce for example, is one way to reduce the amount of weight and supplies that we would need to carry with us. We could get an added bonus from the process of photosynthesis in which the carbon dioxide we exhale is absorbed by the plant allowing for its subsequent production of oxygen. So, bring on Sunny Soybean!

Astronaut Clayton Anderson talks with a young student.Image at left: Astronaut Clayton Anderson talks with a young student. Image credit: NASA

Drs. Pometto and Lester and their highly capable teams have been working hard for quite some time to incorporate soybeans into an astronaut’s diet. An excellent protein source, soybeans are already being used in foods consumed on the ISS. To paraphrase Dr. Lester, we can make soybeans taste like chicken, beef or pork so that we can eat it in places where we have no chickens, cows, or pigs! Research has also shown that soybeans aid the production of calcium within the body, a key for astronauts who lose bone mass on orbit due to the absence of gravity. For a 6-9 month trip to Mars, that’s a long time to be weightless…so, chalk up another advantage for Soybeans!

From chili to milk products including raspberry/blueberry yogurt and malted milk balls (both taste tested by yours truly!) space food with a soybean compliment is here to stay. The experts say they even have a process to create texture in soybean food products, enabling them to develop things like soybean chips. Soy “potato” chips, you say? Toss me a bag, will you?