Recipe for success on flights to Mars

Space food might conjure thoughts of the fruit-flavoured Tang drink, astronaut ice cream or space food sticks, but none of these products have the strong connection to space that one might imagine. Tang wasn’t developed for space, merely used during some early flights. Astronaut ice cream, the staple of air and space museums worldwide, was actually developed for spaceflight but hasn’t ever flown to space. And space food sticks were mostly a commercial product attempting to cash in on the excitement around spaceflight in the early 1960s, though they did fly aboard Skylab III.

Today’s space food eaten aboard the International Space Station (ISS) shares more similarities with military Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), vacuum sealed plastic pouches that must be rehydrated or reheated. Ideally, space food should be lightweight, compact in volume, nutritious, easy to prepare, eat and clean up (microgravity complicates all of these requirements), long lasting and delicious.

For a mission to Mars, food will need to last many years. Food for Mars-bound astronauts would be nearly two-and-half-years old by the time the astronauts returned to Earth, and supplies pre-positioned on Mars, sent during the launch window prior to a manned mission, would be three-and-a-half-years old by the time a crew arrived on Mars.

From a logistics view, the ideal food is a nutrient- and calorie-dense brick that would last for many years; the modern equivalent of hardtack and salt pork, though with better nutritional value. But such food ‘bricks’ are less than ideal from a crew perspective.

We were three of the six members of HI-SEAS Mission III, which gave us an insight into some of the issues that will be faced by future crews journeying to Mars.

HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog & Simulation) is a series of simulated Mars missions funded by NASA and run by Dr Kim Binsted of the University of Hawaii. The study’s overall goal is to investigate crew selection, performance and cohesion; and how to apply those lessons to a crewed mission to Mars.

Our mission, ran for eight months up to June 2015. During this time, we lived in a dome on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, in the middle of a desolate lava field. We didn’t see people beyond the members of our crew and communication with the outside world was limited to methods with an imposed 20-minute delay to simulate the time it takes for a signal to travel between Earth and Mars.

Water was only periodically trucked in, thus limiting crew members to eight minutes of showering a week. Power was supplied by an off-grid energy system. And to venture outside we had to don simulated space suits. And for meals, we could only eat food cooked from shelf-stable ingredients – i.e. food that would last a three-year mission to Mars without spoiling.

Most of our meat, vegetables, fruit and dairy came in either dried or freeze-dried form. Removing the water delays spoilage and reduces weight and freeze-dried foods tend to have a Styrofoam-like texture before they’ve been rehydrated, while dried foods are much denser.

There was also a large stock of grains, legumes, flours, spices, seasonings and a variety of snacks. Generally, canned items were avoided because of their relatively heavy weight. Our pantry was a 20-foot shipping container mostly full of food – but even that wasn’t large enough to keep six people fed for the eight months. We needed three re-supplies as well.

Initially, we ate some of the pre-made freeze-dried meals similar to the kind used for camping, but they were disliked by most of the crew. A favourite low power meal was Build-Your-Own-Ramen – put all your favourite freeze dried veggies, meats, soup base and noodles in a big bowl and just add boiling water. On sunny days, when power wasn’t a concern, we were able to be more creative.

Social structure

As a crew, we decided how we wanted to organise our meals. For breakfast and lunch, people mostly cooked for themselves whereas dinner was prepared by a team of two and eaten all together. We set a rotating cooking schedule, which was occasionally interrupted by days of leftovers, low-power days or special celebration meals. Each day there was a chef in charge of making dinner with an assistant sous chef. There was also a clean-up crew of two for the day. After each chef and sous-chef had cooked, the sous chef would shift, so eventually every crew member worked with every other person in both a leading and following role. This was one of our few areas of social structure over the course of the mission and was devised by the crew. Other crews have organised their time and duties differently.

Our kitchen was small but well-equipped. We had induction cooktops, a small oven, microwave, toaster, kettle, rice cooker and yogurt maker. We also had a small garden which was Martha’s personal research project. It wasn’t large enough to make a significant contribution to our calories but the rare, small portions of fresh salad we got from it and the slightly more plentiful herbs were always a welcome addition. It was also a connection to ‘Earth’ and our only source of green.

Life in the HI-SEAS dome could become a little stale. The scenery through the one window never changed, the work was repetitive and the EVAs never took us more than a mile or two away.

The greatest source of variety day-to-day was our food though crew members quickly found out that cooking with the shelf-stable ingredients could be difficult and sometimes frustrating.

Challenges in the kitchen had to be overcome with willpower, creativity and necessity. Something that would take a few seconds on Earth, like adding cheese to a meal, might take a full hour on our simulated Mars because rehydrating the freeze-dried shredded cheese could only be done slowly and incrementally by adding cold water and keeping the container in the refrigerator.

The pre-made meal most commonly eaten in the dome was macaroni and cheese. Its popularity was more dependent on it being a staple comfort food; something that kept us all connected to our childhood, our days as college students and our ‘cheat days’ from whatever diet we were trying. Again, it tied us back to Earth.

Cooking for others was one of the ways that enabled us to come together as a crew. We celebrated the successes and laughed off the failures, and bonded much faster and deeper than in a traditional friendship.

Of all the challenges we faced as a crew, the daily meal we shared together consistently brought us closer together and kept us connected. It served as a gauge of morale; when a crewmate didn’t attend dinner, it was a signal to the rest of the crew that there was something wrong. Whether it was bad news from home, depression, isolation or just being in a good flow with your personal research, it gave the rest of the crew an indication to check in and keep better tabs on someone. If the social structure inside the dome became stressed, it was always most apparent during mealtimes when the normally jovial atmosphere became tense and quiet.

Expression of culture

Apart from nutrition, food affects us on so many levels; it’s hard to understate its importance on a mission. Not having enough food can cause low levels of blood sugar, make people irritable, resulting in low energy and lethargy. Not getting the right foods can affect mood, the body’s ability to function and repair itself, and to fend off illness.

Food is also an expression of culture and can connect you to a feeling of normalcy. Weekly debriefs were made pleasant by having our discussions over a batch of fresh scones and a pot of coffee. It’s also a creative endeavour and, by spending time creating something delicious for your crewmates, it becomes an expression of caring for them and fulfils the urge to do something nice for the people around you.

We ate well in the dome, and our best memories from those eight months involve special food that we made, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t excited when we got out and were able to eat all the things we’d been missing

Living in the confinements of the Dome, each day can seem very like the one before – you begin to lose a sense of time and the exact chronology of events becomes lost. But particularly good meals from the Dome still shine brightly in our memories. Stand-outs that we still talk about were special BBQ night, burger and multiple sushi and pizza nights. These meals were made even more special by witnessing the amount of time and effort each person put into making things as perfect as possible for the crew. Sophie recalls how proud she felt after spending an afternoon cooking and being able to present the crew with a splendid and delicious dinner.

Occasionally, the reality of space makes some of these activities and foods difficult. We didn’t have to deal with zero gravity, or even try to simulate that part of a mission to Mars. Living off-grid on renewable energy, however, we did have to deal with power shortages when the solar panels weren’t generating enough electricity to allow for cooking. We used to joke that when it’s cold and dark out, we can’t have heat or light – or a proper dinner.

One of the hardest parts of getting through dust storms, or patches of bad weather, was the inability to cook a regular meal. We had poor weather at Christmas, but decided to splurge on running the generator. We all felt it was important to have a festive holiday dinner with roast turkey, vegetables, stuffing and potatoes at a time when everyone on the crew would be missing their family and friends back home.

At a later point in the mission, we had a whole week of poor weather and lacked sufficient fuel for our back-up generators. That was a very cold, dark week where we had to get by on dried fruit and nuts, cereal and cereal bars, and other foods that didn’t require cooking. If we did heat water, we would coordinate with others so that we only had to run the kettle once or twice. Instant foods tend to be high in sodium, have a lot of wheat filler, and are generally not as tasty as what we could prepare ourselves. We were very happy when the sun started shining on us again and we could return to cooking.

Eating a freshly prepared, home-cooked meal every night and only cooking once a week was a luxurious arrangement. We ate well in the dome, and our best memories from those eight months involve special food that we made, though that doesn’t mean we weren’t excited when we got out and were able to eat all the things we’d been missing.

About the authors

Dr Martha Lenio runs Mars Green Consulting, a renewable energy and sustainability business in Ontario, Canada. In 2015 she commanded the third HI-SEAS mission, an eight-month simulation funded by NASA via the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Sophie Milam, MEng, is a chemist and systems engineer for SVL Analytical Inc in Idaho, United States. She was Executive Officer for HI-SEAS mission III whilst also finishing her Master’s degree from the University of Idaho.

Zak Wilson was chief engineer of HI-SEAS mission III and is running a study titled ‘Remote Support of Additive Manufacturing on Martian Analogs’ during HI-SEAS mission V as a continuation of the 3D printing work he started during mission III.

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Image Credit: Room / Room