What Tastes Good in Outer Space? Cooking for Mars-Bound Travelers

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How long could you live off dehydrated fruit and powdered eggs? For astronauts on two- to three-year missions in outer space, subsisting on just-add-water meals gets old pretty fast.

Of all the challenges of eating well in orbit, menu fatigue is a big one. Over time, astronauts get tired of foods they once enjoyed and they start eating less, risking bone and muscle loss and returning to earth undernourished and underweight. “We need to figure out the best way to feed astronauts on long-term missions,” says Kim Binsted, an associate professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, which is participating in a NASA study do just that.

Sponsored by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, six selected crew members will embark on a simulated Mars mission in early 2013 during which they will develop tastier foods and test crew nutrition and menu satisfaction. They’ll also figure out whether it’s feasible to let astronauts cook for themselves.

The crew members chosen for the mission, called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), comprise scientists, a journalist and a professor. They were selected from a pool of 700 applicants; three other finalists will make up the reserve crew. In June, the team underwent testing and training to prepare for the mission, including team-building exercises, sensory testing, academic preparation and, of course, cooking lessons.

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Under the tutelage of Rupert Spies, chef and senior lecturer at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, the HI-SEAS crew learned how to get creative in the kitchen. They devised a surprisingly wide variety of dishes including sushi, paella, pizza and croissants, all without fresh ingredients. Hand rolls and nigiri sushi were fashioned with canned fish and pickled vegetables, for example. Doesn’t sound appealing? The crew members insisted it “tasted amazing.”

“I was really impressed with how much culinary creativity is possible without fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy,” says crew member Oleg Abramov, a research space scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s astrogeology branch in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Before this workshop, if I had been presented with the apple pie that we made, I would never have guessed that it was made with dehydrated apples.”

Abramov, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Ph.D in planetary science, grew up in his grandfather’s footsteps, a chief flight surgeon at the Russian cosmonaut-training facility Star City. In 2003, Abramov joined Crew 12 of the Mars Desert Research Station, another simulated Mars mission run by the Mars Society. For two weeks he helped configure a telescope used for remote operations and field-tested rovers; while at the habitat, he observed the last re-entry of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. “I’m in the field of planetary science largely to help open up the solar system for human exploration using robotic spacecraft,” says Abramov, “but I’m always looking for opportunities to make a more direct contribution.”

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Starting next year, the HI-SEAS team will move to a barren lava field in Hawaii and live in isolation while carrying out their food-prep experiments. They’ll be contained in a specially built simulated Martian base and will live and work like astronauts, which means suiting up in space gear whenever they leave their habitat. To best simulate living on Mars, the crew will also experience a time delay of about 20 minutes in communicating with anyone on the outside, making live conversations impossible. “In effect, we will be limited to e-mail as our primary means of interaction with the outside world, which I anticipate will be our greatest challenge,” says Abramov.

The cooking component of the crew’s mission may well be the least difficult part of their job. The team’s duties will include testing crew satisfaction with instant foods compared with foods prepared by the crew; the question is whether and how much space travelers’ preferences change over time. The team will also gauge the time, power and water needed to prepare and clean up after crew-cooked meals, to figure out how much additional resources are required. In the end, the HI-SEAS crew hopes to emerge with a collection of helpful recipes and tips.

“I’m hoping that this project will help future astronauts be more productive,” says Abramov, “and I hope to learn more about the challenges of long-duration human spaceflight and have a better understanding of at least a small fraction of what it would be like to travel to Mars.”

Eventually, earth-bound space buffs will be able to follow the HI-SEAS team’s mission on their blog, and even suggest recipes for them to try.

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