Making meals on Mars

A mission to Mars is physically and mentally exhausting. But if you could cook on the Mars base, a future mission would probably be more tolerable. In April, TPM researcher Angelo Vermeulen will be taking on the role of crew commander to put that to the test.

Day 334. The return journey from Mars to Earth is proceeding according to plan. The day looks as if it will be like so many others on this seemingly interminable journey through space. On the menu for today there is freeze-dried powdered food with water, yet again.

At the mean time in a small chamber in the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow that is serving as ground control for a simulated 17-month mission to the red planet, Konstantin Chetvergov has some serious concerns. The shower cabin in the ‘spaceship’ – a series of containers in part of the institute where six men have been confined for almost a year – is no longer draining properly.

“I need to be tactful in explaining this to the astronauts and certainly not use a commanding tone when I tell them to check out the problem”, Chetvergov tells a visiting journalist from New Scientist. When you have been confined for as long as a year, with no daylight and with only freeze-dried food, trivialities like this can easily escalate, as Chetvergov knows only too well.

The crew were irritable, which was totally understandable. A return journey to Mars is an exhausting experience. A recent publication in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’(doi/10.1073/pnas.1212646110) confirms that the test subjects in this notorious Mars 500 mission, as it is officially known, had issues with fatigue, impaired cognitive skills and became lethargic (the researchers even use the term hypokinesia).

And this experiment was only a pale imitation of the real thing: a genuine mission will probably last twice as long. The outward and return journey will each take at least six months and the astronauts will be expected to stay on the planet for more than two years. This is because the Earth and Mars are only in a suitable position relative to each other to enable a space mission once every 26 months.

Space travel organisations such as ESA, NASA and the Russian Roskosmos are all conducting research into the effects on the crew of such a long period of isolation. If a mission to Mars is ever to be successful, these kinds of research questions are at least as important as technical issues.

Alongside good-quality light that mimics the light on earth in terms of its colour and intensity and regular physical activity, food appears to be an important factor. The fear is that eating bland freeze-dried food will literally get on the astronauts’ nerves. “The food was a real problem”, explained one test subject after the end of the Russian experiment. “We were continually complaining about it.”

“Ready-to-eat beef Stroganoff, pasta and soup with rice: they are not exactly disgusting, but you soon get sick of that type of meal”, explains researcher and artist Angelo Vermeulen. “It is much better to prepare your own meal, for example based on freeze-dried broccoli with a sauce made from milk powder and flour. That still tastes relatively fresh.”

Vermeulen speaks from experience, or at least a little. Last January, he spent two weeks in the Mars Desert Research Station, a cylinder-shaped experimental habitat sealed off by airlocks in the red desert of Utah (United States). It is used to simulate life on Mars, including brief excursions in spacesuits.

Meals and moods

It was the part of the groundwork for a major experiment to be launched in April. The Delft researcher will be crew commander for a group of six people (three men and three women) who will take part in a four-month Mars mission. The mission has been organised by Cornell University (in New York State) and the University of Manoa in Hawaii and is funded by NASA.

The HI-SEAS mission (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) aims to investigate the effect of freeze-dried ready meals on the moods of the crew and find out whether the crew’s moods are improved if astronauts can cook for themselves, using what are known as shelf stable ingredients. These include freeze-dried foods, as well as ingredients such as rice, flour and honey.

The experiment will take place on the flanks of the Mauna Loa Volcano on Hawaii, where the sphere-shaped habitat measuring approximately 11 metres in diameter is currently in the process of completion.

The test subjects will alternate between eating meals they have made themselves and ready meals. They will take photographs of the dishes, note down the ingredients and weights, evaluate the food and send all the data to nutritional researchers at two American universities. At the same time, they will take regular medical and cognitive tests and complete questionnaires about their moods.

An additional part of the nutrition research involves the test subjects testing their sense of smell. “If people spend a long time with no fresh air, we expect this to have an impact on their sense of smell”, explains Vermeulen. “We will therefore be testing our ability to smell several times each week. We will have to guess the contents of around twenty small containers. Some of them we will need to sniff up close and others we will suck up through a straw (to test the ‘retronasal’ sense of smell). They could literally smell of anything: chicken soup, cheese, chewing gum.”

As many as 700 people applied to take part in the mission. Vermeulen was not selected for his culinary skills. “I am a pretty average chef, although I can improvise quite well. The good news is that some other team members are highly experienced chefs”, he laughs.

Vermeulen is conducting PhD research in the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM) into concepts for future spaceships (as part of the participatory systems initiative research programme). This experiment could not suit him better. He will be able to spend the four months gaining inspiration for his thesis.

As crew commander, it is his job to ensure that peace prevails on board the ship. “I will act as a kind of coach. I was given this role because I have spent many years working on community building.”

A backup crew will be on standby to take over if tensions become too much in the base on Hawaii. Vermeulen does not expect it to be needed. “I will avoid jumping the gun and claiming victory at this early stage. But we have got to know each other and appear to be compatible.”

Reproducing spaceships

Vermeulen’s PhD research is about integrated solutions for spaceships. “Solutions that involve a combination of the biological, technical and social dimensions. It is also about spaceships that can reproduce themselves.”

“It is not a vague and woolly subject”, assures Vermeulen. “I won’t be building any real spaceships either. But I will be developing concepts and conducting simulations. The idea is to use the perspective of art and design for discourse within engineering sciences.”

All six of the crew will also be conducting their own personal research on Hawaii in order to ensure that the mission is as realistic as possible. If they really were on Mars, they would of course be carrying out numerous research projects.

Vermeulen predicts a distant future in which the Mars base will be self-sufficient because food is cultivated on site. Not surprisingly, agriculture on Mars will be his area of focus. He will be growing lettuce and cabbage in a greenhouse far away from the base. To do this, he will be using a remote-controlled robot arm.

“My experiments are the first step towards a much larger plan. In the future, self-activating greenhouses will be dropped onto Mars to start growing food even before the astronauts arrive. Robots will work in those greenhouses. They will do all the work, even after the people have arrived. The astronauts have enough to do with their research and maintaining the base and will not be able to engage full-time in agriculture as well.”

One of Vermeulen’s colleagues, Simon Englerfrom Carnegie Mellon University, will also be focusing on robots in his personal research. He is responsible for a robot that is very similar to a Mars rover and will accompany the crew on expeditions. In addition, Engler plans to see whether robots can act as trusty companions that support the crew during a mission.

The crew will regularly venture out with their spacesuits, followed by a robot to take samples and position sensors. The team members will be helping the geologist Oleg Abramov from the United States Geological Survey(a federal research institute for geology) with his personal research. Abramovaims to use heat sensors to reconstruct the origins of the relatively recent (and still hot) volcano.

Vermeulen has high expectations for this geological research, even though it was originally intended purely as a means of making the mission more realistic. “Igenuinely believe that this will result in some interesting papers.”

It will certainly look strange to any lost tourist wandering around the flanks of theMauna Loa volcano. People wearing spacesuits, followed closely by a robot?

“It could be very disruptive and difficult if we actually come across someone. It is an isolation experiment. If anyone starts hanging around the space station, in a worst-case scenario someone will have to take off their suit and talk to that person.”

But Vermeulen does not expect that to happen. “The area is very remote. You can just make out a road, far in the distance and a car passes by there once or twice a day. The only other thing that reminds us that we are still on earth is the occasional passing cloud or bird.”

Redacteur Redactie

Heb je een vraag of opmerking over dit artikel?

Comments are closed.