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NASA Attempts to Conquer One of the Great Challenges of Space Travel: Menu Fatigue

Meet the six-person team working high on the dry, volcanic terrain of Mauna Loa—an area remarkably similar to the Martian landscape—to develop new foods for astronauts.
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One morning last spring, some crew members on a Mars space mission cooked up a batch of French toast. The chef-astronauts were, actually, on the windswept slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa enduring a four-month isolation experiment that was—for the most part—a food and mood study. For kicks, one of them threw a bunch of red food coloring into the batter, an homage to the Red Planet. People, it turns out, will do anything for a little variety.

We might think the challenges of space exploration are all technological, but it turns out that “menu fatigue”—astronauts tiring of their food and not eating—is also a problem. It can endanger crew health by accelerating muscle and bone loss, and contribute to a decline in morale, jeopardizing any long expedition. During an isolation experiment in Russia that lasted a year and a half, in 2010 and 2011, subjects grew listless and bored; food was one thing they could not stop talking about. It seems that what—and how—astronauts eat is critical to the psychology of a successful and hardy crew that will go the distance.

The agency has recently given an Austin, Texas-based company a $125,000 grant to develop a 3-D food printer that would squeeze out layers of flavored proteins and carbohydrates.

And so a six-person team embarked on the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. At 8,000 feet, the dry, volcanic terrain of Mauna Loa is littered with cinder cones and inhospitable to most vegetation; it is remarkably similar to the Martian landscape. The crew members lived in a 1,370-square-foot, two-level research dome, and were permitted to make ventures outside—but only in full space attire. Not the Hawaiian trip most travelers dream about. In fact, the group’s main activity was searching for the magic combination of preparation and cooking strategies that would fare well for astronauts on confined, long-term missions on a planet far, far away.

At HI-SEAS, the crew planned a schedule that alternated two days of eating pre-made food, like mashed potatoes from a pouch and canned sweet and sour pork, with two days using a pantry full of ingredients with long shelf lives, like rice, beans, powdered eggs, and dehydrated broccoli. The six gastronauts were the first mission to study the differences between these types of cuisine, using a stove, microwave, oven, and breadmaker. Though astronauts can’t cook traditionally on spacecraft due to zero gravity—food wouldn’t stay in the pan—Mars has about a third of Earth’s gravity, presenting a new opportunity (and challenge): Astronauts could feasibly cook there.

During pre-mission planning, the crew took recipe suggestions through the HI-SEAS website. One woman recommended salmon patties. So crew commander (and TED Fellow) Angelo Vermeulen and education outreach officer Sian Proctor mixed up canned salmon, Parmesan, ground flax seed, flour, various spices, and a heap of mayonnaise. (You can watch Vermeulen and Proctor try to pry the patties out of a bowl and onto a cookie sheet during an episode of the HI-SEAS cooking show on YouTube.) The two cheerfully worked together to complete a necessary chore: dinner for six. Their camaraderie seemed to smooth the way for subsequent tasks, no matter how mundane or difficult.

Every day, team members filled out questionnaires about what they’d eaten, their mood, their general health, and their productivity. These showed that after less-loved meals—typically those in the pre-made category—group morale took a nosedive; synonyms for down-hearted and anxious started showing up in the questionnaires when people didn’t go back for seconds. The least popular dishes? Freeze-dried meat and glutinous “kung fu” chicken. The verdict on the salmon patties? Thumbs-up.

Of course, to cook a meal takes time and water, two resources in short supply on space missions. So NASA is also exploring the hi-tech, hyper-efficient frontier of culinary automation. The agency has recently given an Austin, Texas-based company a $125,000 grant to develop a 3-D food printer that would squeeze out layers of flavored proteins and carbohydrates; meat and cheese and pasta for lasagna, say, or maybe even a triple-decker tiramisu.

As explorers since the dawn of time have known, when you’re far from home, cooking—and breaking bread—has a higher meaning. According to Jean Hunter, a Cornell University professor who co-designed the HI-SEAS mission, during historic sea and polar expeditions “tasty and varied food, plus periodic celebrations with special foods” were important “in maintaining crew morale.” During their two-plus-year expedition to the Pacific Coast beginning in 1804, Lewis and Clark recognized this; they experimented with the ingredients they found (berries, squirrels), and rewarded their men with buffalo dumplings. For their one-month anniversary, the HI-SEAS crew celebrated with a near-gourmet meal of Hawaiian-inspired Spam musubi, vegetable sushi, fruit-spiked lemonade, and chocolate cake. The good mood lasted for hours.