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Months of “Life on Mars” for astronauts: what does it mean for food safety on earth?

By Fiona Barry , 20-Aug-2013

HI-SEAS astronaut Yajaira Sierra-Sastre in a photograph taken by fellow crew member  Sian Proctor
HI-SEAS astronaut Yajaira Sierra-Sastre in a photograph taken by fellow crew member Sian Proctor

Astronauts have lived for four months in a simulation of a Mars space station to explore food possibilities for space exploration.

Six researchers spent months camped in isolation on a Hawaiian volcano, recreating life on a NASA base and wearing space suits every time they stepped outside. They finished the experiments on August 13.

The scientists lived in a two-storey dome at an 8,000ft altitude on the slopes of Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth.

The surrounding landscape is barren of vegetation and wildlife, mimicking the surface of the red planet.

Sushi in space

The program, Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), is funded by NASA in collaboration with scientists Jean Hunter of Cornell University and Kim Binsted of University of Hawaii.

The mission compared two ways of eating for astronauts: pre-prepared meals versus food cooked by the crew.

Past space missions have favored dried food which needed only added water and heat.

Since there is gravity on Mars, researchers were able to try dishes like fresh bread and sushi, although on a real mission these would require transporting kitchen equipment and washing-up water to another planet.

Sian Proctor, a crew member, said the study addressed the “menu fatigue” that can arise from monotonous meals on long missions.

Dull food is a problem on space trips because astronauts may under-eat and become malnourished. One of the purposes of the exercise was to assess whether crew members would sustain higher morale and productivity by making their own food.

Mealtimes on space journeys are a way to “take away some of that boredom” and “express yourself,” Proctor said just after leaving the Mars habitat.

But you also want some of the efficiency that comes along with those days that you are really busy and you just want to make something quick," she added.

Members of the public sent space-appropriate recipes to the “Mars” colony, winning a competition with dishes including Moroccan Beef Tagine and Spam Fried Rice.

The 36-foot dome on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano housed astronauts for four months

HACCP invented for Apollo program

On emerging from the dome, crew members were optimistic about the usefulness of the study’s findings.

"I really think we proved that by offering people shelf-stable ingredients and the possibility to cook meals with that, that is a really good strategy to keep people enthusiastic about the food they eat.

But on the other hand the data still has to be analysed," said Angelo Vermeulen, one of the team.

The implications of the Mars experiment could go far beyond NASA’s work. Technology invented for past space missions has transformed food hygiene and quality back on Earth.

HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), the food industry’s safety system, was invented by NASA and the Pillsbury company to keep astronauts safe when they were first sent into space in the 1960s.

Paul Lachance was NASA’s flight and food coordinator during the first manned space missions. Aware of the potential disaster if contaminants like botulism or salmonella made their way into astronauts’ food, he developed protocols for keeping food free of microbes.

Space travel was the first time in history that zero pathogens in foods was required, said Lachance in a 2007 interview with Jennifer Ross-Nazzal for NASA’s Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.

HACCP was “a systematic way of advancing safety. It involves identification, evaluation, and control of the hazard,” he said. These protocols were adopted for terrestrial use by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1972.

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