For the past four months, six researchers have been living in a small dome located in a desolate Hawaiian lava field as part of a NASA-funded experiment designed to figure out what people might eat on Mars and during other missions in deep space. The team of six men and women emerged Tuesday, eager to share their experiences and overjoyed to dine on the first fresh food they’ve eaten in months.
“It’s a moment I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. Walking out…experiencing the sunshine and wind on our faces,” said team member Oleg Abramov, a research space scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology branch in Flagstaff, Arizona.
The mock space colonists lived in a 993-square-foot dome on the barren slopes of Mauna Loa–an environment meant to simulate the lack of sensory stimulation on Mars. The goal of the project, called the Hawaii Space Analog and Simulation or HI-SEAS, was to analyze the difference in how the crew responded to standard pre-packaged astronaut fare versus a space-based version of “home” cooking.
According to Kim Binstead, a UH professor who helped oversee the research, the crew alternated between cooking and non-cooking days. On non-cooking days, they consumed only pre-prepared meals. On cooking days, they prepared meals made from such ingredients as Spam, freeze-dried meats and fish, grains, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, powdered dairy products, and chips. The team recorded their evaluations of the food based on such factors as taste and texture.
The faux astronauts, all of whom had backgrounds in science, used the available ingredients to concoct an impressive variety of dishes, including split pea and spam soup, spam and egg sandwiches, chili burritos, borscht, and sushi rolls. Their goal was to prepare meals that were both nutritionally and emotionally satisfying. The chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella was such a favorite comfort food it had to be strictly rationed.
“I had never cooked with Spam before,” said team member Sian Proctor, a geology professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. “I have a new respect for Spam and what you can do with Spam.” However, creativity in the kitchen did not make up for the complete lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in the researchers’ diet. According to Binstead, “the commander almost cried when he had a tomato again for the first time.”
Binstead said it would be several months before the results of the experiment would be analysed. When that happens, the researchers hope to be able to answer questions about whether astronauts should cook their meals on Mars and which foods are the most satisfying–psychologically, emotionally, and nutritionally. Interestingly, astronauts tend to crave very spicy foods while on extended missions. Whether their desire to pour tabasco sauce over everything is physiological, psychological, or both is a question Binstead and her colleagues hope to answer.
NASA has committed $1.2 million for future experiments designed to investigate the psychological effects of extended periods of extreme isolation with a few other people. The experiments, to be conducted over the next three years, will involve select groups of people who will live in tight quarters for periods of four, eight, and 12 months.