Like many of you, I like to cook. Or at least, I think I do. At the end of a long day, I sometimes can’t tell if cooking brings me satisfaction. And making dishes from scratch, I don’t always know if I’m saving money versus ordering takeout. What I am sure about, however, is that I like to eat. And as gluttonous as this may sound, good food really can make me happy.
Believe it or not, this complicated personal psychology around food is an integral part of making a manned mission to Mars successful. Because on a long-duration space voyage, a limited stock of food will need to be dehydrated to prevent spoilage and save weight. So a NASA grant is funding associate professor Jean Hunter of Cornell University, who, along with researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is conducting a study in which six volunteers will live off of dehydrated foods for four months at the HI-SEAS lab in Hawaii. The plan? Simulate the conditions of cooking and eating on the Red Planet and learn the best tricks to culinary satisfaction on Mars.
Half the time, participants will simply mix water into ready-to-eat dehydrated camping meals. For the rest of their meals, they’ll be offered raw dehydrated materials–powdered milk, dried vegetables, etc.–to make their own dishes. What the study hopes to answer is that complicated question we ask ourselves each night: Does it really make sense to cook dinner from scratch, or is the easier option just as satisfying and economically feasible?
Why is this question so important? This issue actually comes down to nutrition. Studies have shown that in microgravity, degenerative effects of malnutrition can be heightened. Over the course of a three- to five-year mission, the potential for malnutrition becomes a very real threat to astronaut health, even with plenty of food around.
“When you eat the same thing over and over again, you get bored by it, [you get] full sooner, and end up eating less. For astronauts who might be somewhere far away from home where there’s not much variety in their lives, getting bored with the food can be really serious,” Hunter tells me. “In space, they’re going to get bored with a lot of things. Having the food be interesting will improve morale, but it will also make them eat more.”
It’s a space-age design problem with roots in the early 19th century. Hunter says that the problem dates (at least) back to the pioneer days, when settlers brought along salt pork and other dried foods on limited-payload wagons headed west. Meals had to be prepared in unfamiliar environments with only the tools at hand. But interestingly enough, this hands-on approach of the early pioneers may have actually contributed to their survival.
“[Previous] data indicates that when crews cook for themselves, they like the food better and they tend to eat more. We want to know if the same thing would be true over a longer period,” Hunter explains. “And we want engineering design data that will support the eventual decisions that will need to be made–resource costs, and the less tangible aspects, like how happy the crew is, are they happy with their food, and are they getting along?”
Interestingly enough, you can make some fairly complex dishes from dehydrated ingredients. Cocoa powder, dehydrated milk, sugar, cornstarch, and a fat can create chocolate pudding. Dehydrated egg, rice, and seaweed can make egg sushi. In the study, it will be up to each “crew” to learn and test new dishes, building a recipe book that can be used well into the future.
“Astronaut ice cream feeds the imagination more than the mouth, I think,” Hunter says of the novelty food most people associate with space (it’s only been flown on a single Apollo mission–too crumbly). “If our people wanted to make ice cream, they’d start with dried milk, maybe some hydrolyzed milk fat, or they’d break out one of their very few cans of sweetened condensed milk, and they’d figure out how to make that into ice cream mix, then they’d have to freeze it in a bag inside of a bag of ice and salt.”
Hard? Yes. Resource intensive? Definitely. But that ice cream would probably taste better than a lot of store-bought stuff.
As to where the research subjects get the rest of the recipes, Hunter believes that an upcoming web portal will encourage a lot of dehydrated food experts to share their knowledge. Wait–dehydrated food experts?
“We expect to hear from the preppers, the people who think the end of the world is coming, the bomb is going to drop, or the virus is on its way,” Hunter says. “There’s a whole culture, mostly in the West, where people are building months of food, water, and ammunition. You have to use those foods all the time, rotate them in and out to keep their nutritional value, so they’ve actually become experts in cooking this food.”
I ask Hunter if she feels it’s a bit ironic, having NASA and Cornell take lessons from people who, in many circles, might be labeled crazy. “I think they’re misguided,” she admits, “but they have something to teach us in terms of how to do this planning properly.”