FIRST PUBLISHED IN NEWYORKER.COM, JUNE 17, 2013
IN APRIL, SIX PEOPLE entered a geodesic dome, just thirty-six feet in diameter, perched on the barren, reddish slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa. They will be there until August, simulating that they are living on Mars. Their mission: to eat.
While humans are decades away from potentially becoming an invasive species on Mars, it’s not too soon for NASA to think about how astronauts will feed themselves when they arrive. A question like “How much water is needed to make a beef tagine?” must be answered by engineers well in advance. Funded byNASA’s Human Research Program, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation’s four-month mission is to compare classic astronaut fare of pre-made, prepackaged meals to a new system that allows for combining a limited number of shelf-stable ingredients.
The crew of six terranauts, selected from a pool of seven hundred applicants, alternate between two days of prepackaged meals and two days of dome home cooking; chef duties are executed in pairs. The pantry has been stocked with ingredients like flax seeds, sourdough starter, anchovies, egg-white crystals, dried hijiki seaweed, and canned Spam—a nod to local cuisine, as well as Pacific U.S. military history. While the crew completed cooking classes at Cornell prior to entering the habitat, no member has professional culinary experience. They are relying on a cookbook and a mission-support group, which is available for twelve hours a day to hunt down online recipes and answer operational questions. (There is, however, a twenty-minute time delay between the dome and the support group, to simulate the communication gap with Mars.)
The HI-SEAS crew documents every meal meticulously, like a group of neurotic nutritionists. They record the ingredients that comprise every meal and the weight of each dish; they take photos of every plate and note any leftovers; and they fill out surveys before and after every meal, recording hunger levels, mood, productivity, and health. Sian Proctor, a geology professor who previously lived in a simulated desolate environment as one of the stars of the reality-television series “The Colony,” proclaimed that lunch on April 21st was “amazing.” It was a “Martian” sweet-and-sour-chicken-and-cabbage soup, made with dehydrated veggies and freeze-dried pineapples, and coconut bread. Other favorites have included a Thai red curry with tofu, jasmine rice, and homemade raisin bread (“so good that the crew is looking forward to testing out the green curry paste”) and Tibetan tsampa porridge.
In May, to celebrate the one-month anniversary of living in “the Hab,” as the crew calls the habitat, Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, a materials scientist, made Spam musubi. This kind of cooking has a genuine, if intangible, value, by boosting morale. The explorer “[Ernest] Shackleton, in Antarctica, went out of his way for celebratory meals,” said Kim Binsted, a project leader for HI-SEAS. “We expect that celebratory meals will be very important,” she said, recalling her own experience cooking poutine for a homesick Canadian crewmate when she lived at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, another simulated Mars habitat, on Devon Island, Canada, for four months in 2007.
Yet, prepackaged meals hold an obvious appeal in space, for largely the same reason a housebound crew on Earth stocks a freezer with Hot Pockets: convenience. “Packaged foods are going to be around forever,” said Michele Perchonok, who leads NASA’s Advanced Food System team, at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston. “We’re never giving that up completely.” One ofNASA’s challenges for Mars, she explained, is to come up with pouched foods that can last for up to five years. Currently, the agency has around seven meat items with that kind of shelf life; it is striving to develop new ways of processing, packaging, and storing these foods.
The downside of relying primarily on prepackaged foods for a long-term surface mission is that they can cause a syndrome known as “menu fatigue,” a common affliction at the International Space Station. “If you have a pre-prepared lasagna, it may be very nice lasagna, but it’s only ever going to be lasagna for the rest of time,” said Binsted. The gastronomically bored astronauts end up consuming fewer calories, and, ultimately, lose weight.
The general phenomenon of astronauts losing weight in space has been well documented, but researchers are still investigating its precise causes. It is clear that something about living in space mutes the sense of taste, dulling appetites. One unproven theory, based on anecdotal evidence, is that, simply, the I.S.S. is smelly: the odor dampens astronauts’ sense of smell, which then affects their taste buds. To examine this theory, the HI-SEAS crew members on Mauna Loa are testing their sense of smell two different ways: they take scratch-and-sniff tests, which gauge the performance of their sense of smell, and odorant-I.D. tests, in which they try to identify a piece of food that is placed in a small, opaque tub by sniffing through a straw.
Another hypothesis points to microgravity, which causes fluid in the body to shift, leading to congestion. At NASA’s Flight Analog Research Unit, in Galveston, Texas, another group of volunteers is undergoing a bed-rest study while eating the same diet as the HI-SEAS crew. To simulate microgravity conditions and its fluid-shifting, muscle-atrophying effects on Earth, these less fortunate subjects will lie horizontally, with their feet slightly elevated and their heads angled down, for weeks. During the study, which will observe any changes that occur in their nasal cavities while staring at the ceiling for so long, the volunteers will be evaluated on their ability to identify odors, and they will have the flow of air through their nostrils measured.
Ultimately, the food for any future long-term surface mission, like on Mars, will most likely be supplied by a combination of the standard prepackaged-food system and a “bio-regenerative” system based on a formula that accounts for the food’s weight, volume, prep time, nutrition, and the satisfaction it delivers. A trade-off study by NASA’s Advanced Food System group tested a hundred recipes and found that having some combination of the two food systems would also be most efficient in terms of the cargo load. “When you’re talking about a Mars mission that goes two and a half years, and if you’ve got to feed a crew of six, you’re looking at around twenty-two thousand pounds of food,” said Perchonok. “About three thousand of that is packaging.” NASA could cut down on that amount if it were to send bulk ingredients, like soybeans or wheat berries, to Mars, which could then be milled into flour to make bread or pasta. But that could require bulky equipment, like an extruder—another trade-off. “This whole mix and match, we have to figure it all out,” Perchonok said.
While the HI-SEAS study will, ideally, give NASA insight into the importance of food variety and “acceptability” for the long-term goal of habitation on Mars, the results could be helpful for more immediate missions as well. “If you tell me I’m going to have meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans that are prepackaged, and all I have to is hydrate it—which takes three minutes,” said Perchonok, “or I have the choice of taking some fresh vegetables out of the garden, mixing them with some tofu that I’ve made, and some packaged chicken and sauces, to make a meal—and that can take me an hour—is the time worth my effort for the quality of the food?” In some ways, these are just basic questions the fortunate among us deal with on Earth every day. But in space, takeout is not an option.