You might be surprised at how powdered milk, dehydrated kelp and shelf-stable chorizo can come together in ways that taste good — especially if you've been cooped up for a few months on a mission with five strangers on a desolate lava crater in Hawaii.
The mission, dubbed HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), is part of a NASA study to figure out how to keep astronauts well fed during multiple-year missions to Mars or the moon. It's being run by a collaboration between Cornell University and the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.
NASA makes an excellent apricot cobbler and a sweet and sour pork in ready-to-eat pouches, says Jean Hunter, a food engineer at Cornell. But "on a planetary surface mission, the timeframe is long enough that the astronauts will have time to get tired of their menu, no matter how good it is," she tells The Salt.
That menu fatigue could affect the quality of the other aspects of a space mission, like gathering data on planetary surfaces and atmospheres, she says. So the volunteers in Hawaii will be turning space fare standards into home-cooked meals to add variety to their lives. With any luck, the volunteers will also benefit from the socialization that comes with creating meals and eating together as a family, she says.
They will "demonstrate caring for each other they way people do on Earth," Hunter says. And that could make a years-long mission to Mars more tolerable for the human brain.
Oleg Abramov, a research space scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, is one of the volunteers. He usually cooks at home, but nothing fancy — omelettes, stir-frys, grilled steak or chicken with a simple vegetable side.
Volunteer "astronauts" will begin inhabiting a simulated space station full-time in early 2013. But they've already started their culinary preparation. The training session Abramov attended a few weeks ago "really impressed me with how much is possible without fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy. We made sushi, paella, pizza and apple pie, among many other things, and all were quite good," he says. "If I were presented with the apple pie that we made, for example, I would never have guessed that it was made with dehydrated apples."
On the Hawaii "astronaut" menu will be peanut butter, chiles, and lots of Asian spices and food items, since many of these are already freeze-dried or preserved. Off the menu, Hunter says, are things like fresh mint and hops. "NASA doesn't permit alcohol," she says.
Cooking and eating food on Mars will likely present a host of scientific challenges. For one, low-gravity makes your head feel stuffy, dulling your sense of smell and taste. That, as our colleague Joe Palca reports, makes astronauts reach for the hot sauce.
The galley on the space station will have a rehydration station, a food warmer, and a two-burner induction cooktop (no open flame cooking in space, people), as well as a small fridge for leftovers, Hunter says.
Will everyone cook? "Just as in Survivor, one or two people will most likely end up doing the cooking," Hunter says. "Just like a family, they'll gravitate towards the chores they like, or can at least tolerate."
Abramov says he can tolerate shelf stable foods, but he's going to miss fresh fruits and veggies. But he has hope: "I was told that we should be able to grow sprouts, which only takes a few days and should provide a quick fix for our veggie cravings."