Friday, June 21, 2013

In Space, No One Can Hear Your Takeout Order

In April, six people entered a geodesic dome, just thirty-six feet in diameter, perched on the barren, reddish slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa. They will be there until August, simulating that they are living on Mars. Their mission: to eat. 

While humans are decades away from potentially becoming an invasive species on Mars, it’s not too soon for NASA to think about how astronauts will feed themselves when they arrive. A question like “How much water is needed to make a beef tagine?” must be answered by engineers well in advance. Funded by NASA’s Human Research Program, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation’s four-month mission is to compare classic astronaut fare of pre-made, prepackaged meals to a new system that allows for combining a limited number of shelf-stable ingredients. 

The crew of six terranauts, selected from a pool of seven hundred applicants, alternate between two days of prepackaged meals and two days of dome home cooking; chef duties are executed in pairs. The pantry has been stocked with ingredients like flax seeds, sourdough starter, anchovies, egg-white crystals, dried hijiki seaweed, and canned Spam—a nod to local cuisine, as well as Pacific U.S. military history. While the crew completed cooking classes at Cornell prior to entering the habitat, no member has professional culinary experience. They are relying on a cookbook and a mission-support group, which is available for twelve hours a day to hunt down online recipes and answer operational questions. (There is, however, a twenty-minute time delay between the dome and the support group, to simulate the communication gap with Mars.)

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