There are plenty of reasons that cosmonauts and futurists the world over have been fascinated with the prospect of traveling to Mars—but food isn't one of them. But even if you're intent on making history as one of the first spacefarers to sign up for a one-way trip to the red planet, you're still going to have to eat. And your options are limited.
The Martian environs may be ideal for driving a rover around on, but not so much for farming or raising livestock. That's why, as the prospect of inhabiting Mars grows inches slowly towards reality, researchers are taking an interest in what, exactly, we'll eat when we get there. To find out, last year, NASA invited a handful of volunteers to live in a Mars simulator in Hawaii—and one of the primary research goals was figuring out what the best stuff to eat was.
The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) saw six faux Mars explorers simulate what it would be like to live, study, and cook on Mars. Nearly four months ago, they entered a giant dome-like habitat in a remote crater on Mauna Loa, and spent 120 days on fake Mars. Their mission is wrapping up as we speak, and Martian foodies are no doubt eager to glean the results.
Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, one of the explorers, explained that the goal was to conduct "a food, mood, and nasal study that investigates the relationship between food preparation time, repetition of foods, perception of food aromas, food acceptability, and food intake in a confined and isolated setting similar to what an astronaut would experience during a mission at a lunar or planetary outpost."
The study, helmed by Prof. Jean Hunter of Cornell University, "aims to find the most adequate food system (i.e., shelf-stable ingredients, pre-packaged meals, a combination thereof) for long-term missions beyond low-Earth orbit," according to the HI-SEAS charter. The study tracked the evolution of the earthlings' preferences as they spent time in isolation, and looked at the general nutritional intake with the foods available.
In other words, the primary goal of the research was to see which sorts of foods humans might be able to stomach eating over and over given the limited options and harsh environs. Anything a Mars-bound colonist eats, after all, has to be shipped in from Earth. So it not only has to survive the trans-solar system journey, but it has to be relatively lightweight and non-perishable. So no steak on the red planet.
This is a big question for space colonization of any kind—whether it's on lunar bases, orbital stations, or otherwise, we're going to want to find something to eat that doesn't make us want to throw up. Enter the HI-SEAS folks. They truly made the best of the options available, and did end up consuming a combination of both natural ingredients and preservative-laden "space foods."
The favorite pre-prepared meals, he said, included "creamy wild rice soup, mashed potatoes, Tasty Bites with instant rice, raspberry crumble, apple sauce, and crackers."
"There’s also been a lot of really good cooked dishes. Some of our crew members are accomplished cooks, and every week there are different surprises. Some success meals were Russian borscht, Moroccan tagine, enchilasagna, seafood chowder, and fabada asturiana," Vermeulen siad. "Wraps work really well: we combine tortillas, different vegetables, Velveeta cheese, and sausage or canned fish into ever-changing combinations. This is actually in line with the success of tortillas at the ISS. In general, the dehydrated and freeze-dried vegetables are a real success. They’re used on a daily basis in almost every meal."
The freeze-dried meat didn't fare as well—they only ended up mixing it into other words.
The worst meal, Vermeulen said, was something called 'Kung Fu Chicken.'
"This gets tiring really fast," he said. "Notwithstanding several ingredients, it has a rather flat taste, and the texture of the meal could be best described as ‘slimy’."
They didn't end up drinking many sugary drinks, and instead turned to water, tea, and coffee.
In the end, HI-SEAS concluded that essential ingredients for a Martian voyage "will include spices, herbs and hot sauce. But also comfort food such as Nutella, peanut butter and margarine. And then enough ingredients rich in fiber. The problem with shelf-stable ingredients is that they’re usually highly processed and hence lacking fiber. We enjoy wheat bread, rye crackers, nuts, and dried fruits for example."
There you have it. Cooking on Mars may be more enjoyable than you'd think.