Five Months in a Dome: Simulating Life and Cooking on Mars

By Wesley Fenlon

NASA funds an experiment to see how prepackaged foods compare to mixable ingredients for a future Martian expedition.

Preparing meals in the weightless environment of the International Space Station, we learned, is no easy task. Something simple that we take for granted down below--mixing foods to combine their flavors--becomes challenging in the absence of gravity. And the foods NASA and other space agencies send into space are limited as well--weight is a constant concern, and foods have to stay edible for months at a time. And the International Space Station orbits the Earth; feeding astronauts who venture to Mars, in the future, will require an enormous amount of planning.

To study and prepare for a Martian expedition, NASA's simulating life on Mars right now. In Hawaii.

Of course, the selected group of study participants aren't sipping mai tais on a tropical vacation. They're actually holed up in a geodesic dome near one of Hawaii's volcanoes--they've been there since April--and they won't get to come out until August. As The New Yorker writes, their mission is to eat and " compare classic astronaut fare of pre-made, prepackaged meals to a new system that allows for combining a limited number of shelf-stable ingredients."

NASA's Skylab Meal System

NASA needs to suss out whether space cooking, in one form or another, is viable. If it isn't, how can NASA keep food from becoming agonizingly repetitive over the years of a Martian expedition?

"One of NASA’s challenges for to come up with pouched foods that can last for up to five years," writes The New Yorker. "Currently, the agency has around seven meat items with that kind of shelf life; it is striving to develop new ways of processing, packaging, and storing these foods.

The downside of relying primarily on prepackaged foods for a long-term surface mission is that they can cause a syndrome known as 'menu fatigue,' a common affliction at the International Space Station. 'If you have a pre-prepared lasagna, it may be very nice lasagna, but it’s only ever going to be lasagna for the rest of time,' said [project leader Kim] Binsted. The gastronomically bored astronauts end up consuming fewer calories, and, ultimately, lose weight.

Photo credit: NASA

The six members of the crew document their meals, noting all the combinations of food they use and how they turn out. Most likely, NASA's future expeditions will rely on a mixture of prepackaged meals and mixable foods, but finding the right balance will still take a lot more studying. Check out the rest of The New Yorker's piece for more on the challenges NASA is considering, from weight to astronaut appetites to how the International Space Station's odor curbs hunger.

Update: video of the HI-SEAS hawaii fake-astronaut expedition below.