In addition to being one of mankind’s most amazing technological feats, space exploration is also a major human biology experiment—how does a person react during the physical and psychological strangeness of a manned space journey?
For the last four months, six people have been helping to answer this question on a simulated mission to Mars that will conclude this Tuesday. On a desolate slope of an abandoned quarry in Hawaii, 8,000 feet above sea level, the volunteers have lived in a two-story geodesic dome and put on a full space suit to venture outside. Their communications have been limited, and their shower time rationed. They’ve each spent much of the day conducting their own individual “space” experiments. But most importantly—because it is the main purpose of the “Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation” (HI-SEAS) study—they’ve been eating food fit for a Mars astronaut.
At some point during schooling, many kids get the chance to sample dehydrated space food: Just add water and heat. It doesn’t look that good. On Mars, because there would be gravity, astronauts could actually sometimes cook their own food from “shelf-stable” ingredients, though the preparation and cleanup would take longer than with ready-made fare. The goal of the HI-SEAS study, run by investigators at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University, has been to figure out the optimal combination of strategies for nourishing Mars astronauts.
It’s an important question because “menu fatigue” is a real danger on any long and isolated journey, but especially on one as long as a hypothetical Mars mission. Boredom with food can cause a person to eat fewer calories (it’s one reason why Slim Fast diets can work)—and that’s an even bigger problem in low-gravity because astronauts are already prone to losing bone and muscle mass.
The six-member crew, all scientific-minded professionals picked from among 700 applicants, kept detailed logs of their food adventures, Kate Greene, a science and technology journalist on the mission, told Co.Exist via an email from "Mars." They filled out smell, taste, and appearance questionnaires for each meal; weighed each food item; tracked water consumption, cooking and cleanup time; and even monitored their sense of smell and nasal passage health to gather data about whether food boredom has physiological effects.
Another fun aspect was that they also tested crowdsourced recipes submitted by the public. Each recipe was limited to using the list of ingredients available. There was “Cajun Style Spam Jambalaya” and “Oatmeal Thickened Beef Stew” for dinner, and “Blueberry Lemon Cornmeal Pancakes” for breakfast. There was even a spicy veggie sushi. The crew will announce the winners this week.
“I’ve enjoyed so many meals here, actually,” says Greene, diplomatically. “A quinoa salad, breakfast tacos, borscht, beef tagine, and all the breads we make with our bread maker. … We’ve also had cakes and puddings and pies, grilled cheese sandwiches and soups like seafood chowder."
A real manned mission to Mars could be a reality within the coming decades. On the one-year anniversary of the Curiosity Rover’s landing on the Red Planet last week, NASA’s chief said he believed that human footprints would follow in its path. With today’s technology, it could take as long as 300 days to even get there.
Even stocked with the best of all possible food pantries, life on a Mars mission would be far from easy. During the 120 days on faux-Mars, Greene missed things you might expect, such as walking about outside, biking, and swimming. But she also gained a new appreciation for even the most humdrum trappings of her life on Earth.
“Something I realized about my day-to-day life on Earth is that it’s full of novelty. I see new people all the time and I go to different places,” says Greene. “In the habitat, novelty has been a lot harder to come by, and it was subtle when I found it—a new recipe, a different way to arrange the furniture, or someone saying something completely out of character. When I noticed these slight changes, my joy and excitement was embarrassingly disproportionate.”
On Tuesday, Greene and her five colleagues will emerge into the daylight without a spacesuit for the first time in months. After a media event and a debrief with the principal researchers on the NASA-funded project, she’ll continue diving into the data she collected during the course of her own study on how to maintain a normal sleep cycle. Luckily for her, she’ll also get to head home.