At first glance, the topic seems entirely frivolous. Gourmet space food. Really, NASA? Is this really where our tax dollars should be going?
But as TIME.com reports, "menu fatigue" can be a serious issue for astronauts on long-term missions. Freeze dried ice cream at the science museum giftshop may have thrilled us as kids, but apparently one can only eat so many iterations of the same dehydrated dishes before losing all interest in food. Malnutrition puts space travelers at risk of bone and muscle loss and compromises their job performance.
Over 700 people applied to be part of the food test mission sponsored by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii. The chosen nine-person crew is composed of scientists, engineers, a doctor, a journalist, and a fitness trainer. Last month they began training for the mission that included cooking lessons. TIME.com's Alexandra Sifferlin writes:
Under the tutelage of Rupert Spies, chef and senior lecturer at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, the crew learned how to get creative in the kitchen. They devised a surprisingly wide variety of dishes including sushi, paella, pizza and croissants, all without fresh ingredients. Hand rolls and nigiri sushi were fashioned with canned fish and pickled vegetables, for example.
In early 2013 the team will begin their 120-day "space mission" on a barren lava field in Hawaii. They'll live in a simulated Martian base, suit up whenever they leave the station, and will have a 20-minute delay in their communications with "Earth." Sifferlin explains:
The team's duties will include testing crew satisfaction with instant foods compared with foods prepared by the crew; the question is whether and how much space travelers preferences change over time. The team will also gauge the time, power and water needed to prepare and clean up after crew-cooked meals, to figure out how much additional resources are required.
The crew hopes their efforts will teach NASA how to improve astronaut productivity in space, and also provide better understanding of what life would be like on a long-term Mars mission.