A standard mission to the International Space Station is six months long. About nine months before launch, each astronaut tastes the 200 or so items on NASA’s space menu and chooses what they want to be sent into space for them. Nutritionists weigh in to make sure they get the nutrients they need, and astronauts can take some ‘bonus’ treats with them. These can be off-the-shelf foods, and astronauts from different nationalities often have special space meals prepared for them. (Tim Peake got a bacon sandwich, beef stew with truffles and sausages and mash, courtesy of Heston Blumenthal.)

Astronaut food
(Image credit: NASA)

As you can imagine, during their six months of eating nothing but ready meals they have to rehydrate, and things out of cans, most astronauts suffer from menu fatigue. But they can’t nip out for a takeaway, and their ability to rustle something up from ingredients is minimal (although some do try it). Making sure astronauts get their nutrients is a medical issue; making sure there’s something they want to eat is a psychological one. A mission to Mars would take two to three years, and NASA is doing serious research on how best to ensure happy and well-fed astronauts for the whole trip.

Doing research in space is expensive, and so as much research as possible is done here on Earth, in analog missions (we have to use the American spelling, apparently!) that aim to recreate conditions in space. The EDEN ISS mission uses Antarctica as an analog, investigating how best to grow food in space.

There are also various crewed missions, where analog astronauts do everything they would do on a space mission – except leave Earth. One of these is the NASA-funded HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), an isolated habitat set in a Mars-like site on the Mauna Loa volcano.

The HI-SEAS habitat - photo by Sian Proctor
The HI-SEAS habitat, with shipping crate ‘air lock’
Photo by Sian Proctor (via Flickr)

During the first HI-SEAS mission in 2013, a crew of six intrepid analog astronauts spent four months living in the habitat (the ‘hab’). They had no visitors, and when they left the hab to explore the lava rock formations, they had to wear mock spacesuits. Although they each had their own research projects to conduct, the main aim of the mission was to evaluate two different food systems. 

On a rolling basis, they were to spend two days eating astronaut-style meals that they rehydrated and heated up. Then they would spend two days preparing their own meals from a selection of dehydrated, freeze-dried and otherwise shelf-stable ingredients.

Dr Sian Proctor was the Education Outreach Officer for the mission. Before it began, she launched a competition on the HI-SEAS website, encouraging people to send in recipe ideas that used the available ingredients. The crew chose 25 recipes from those submitted and made them in the hab, where they had a reasonably standard kitchen with pots and utensils, an oven, a microwave, a bread machine and a pressure cooker. They documented some of their cooking activities in a series of YouTube video called Meals for Mars, and a lot of the recipes are available on the website.

According to mission commander Angelo Vermeulen, the crew preferred cooking. They cooked in pairs, enjoyed the creativity it involved, and felt it contributed to crew cohesion. The cooked meals were also more pleasant (the Kung Fu Chicken ready meals were particularly despised). The downside is that preparing food takes time and effort, something that (along with water and power) will be in short supply on an in-space mission. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the crew found that they enjoyed freeze-dried vegetables. Unlike their conventionally-dehydrated counterparts, these retain much of their colour and texture once they are rehydrated, and are much more like fresh vegetables. They also found egg crystals pleasant and versatile, used a lot of Spam and really enjoyed making fresh bread. Vermeulen says their most popular foods were mashed potatoes (made from flakes and granules), various soups and apple pancakes made with dehydrated apple slices.

Dr Jean Hunter, a space food researcher at Cornell University, was the principal investigator for the HI-SEAS food study (not part of the mission crew). According to her, the analog astronauts went mad for couscous: “My gosh, they went through 25 pounds of couscous in a flash!”

At the end of the mission, when they were allowed out of the hab without the spacesuits, the crew made a bee-line for a buffet of fresh fruit. Questioned about which ingredients were a must for Mars, they listed herbs and spices, hot sauce (an astronaut favourite!), Nutella, peanut butter and margarine. “And then enough ingredients rich in fibre – wheat bread, rye crackers, nuts, and dried fruits,” Vermeulen added.

Meals for Mars, by Doctor Sian Proctor

The scientific analysis of the study hasn’t been published yet, but Dr Proctor has written a great cookbook – Meals for Mars – which you can buy for $25 (including international postage) from the Meals for Mars website. My copy arrived exceptionally quickly, and I’ve already made one of the recipes from it – the Honey Sesame Cake, which was submitted by a White House Pastry Chef. It’s pretty tasty! Next on my list is either the Split Pea & Spam Soup or the Omega Fritters, which are essentially salmon fishcakes.

As well as the recipes, the book is packed with photos from the mission, and some insights about what it was like to live like a Martian for four months. I love it, and Sian Proctor’s enthusiasm for ‘bringing space to your table’!

It’s not just about pretending to be an astronaut for a while. Sian Proctor has the interesting idea that learning to eat like a Martian could make Earth’s food system more sustainable. Using more freeze-dried foods could cut down on food waste and the fuel used for transport. You can learn more about that from her TedX presentation: