The six volunteers who spent four months on a simulated mission to Mars in Hawaii liked the spam, but they loved the couscous. They loved it so much that they almost instantly ran out of the stuff — which is a significant result for an experiment aimed at testing how food should be prepared and consumed during a long-duration space expedition.
"My gosh, they went through 25 pounds of couscous in a flash," said Jean Hunter, a space food researcher at Cornell University who played a leading role in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. The simulation, which ended on Tuesday, required the crew to live and cook in a habitat on Hawaii's Big Island and venture outside only if they were wearing mock spacesuits.
Now that the experiment is over, and the crew members have gotten out of those spacesuits for the last time, it sounds as if there’s something they love even more than couscous: “Fresh air after 4 months,” crew commander Angelo Vermeulen tweeted.
The HI-SEAS experiment, conducted as part of a $947,000 NASA-backed research project, is just one of several efforts designed to anticipate the challenges of a long-duration mission in outer space. Similar simulations have been mounted by other NASA-funded groups and the nonprofit Mars Society. But HI-SEAS was the first to focus primarily on outer-space cuisine.
The experiment was supervised by researchers from Cornell and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Vermeulen and five others — materials scientist Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, roboticist Simon Engler, geologist Sian Proctor, biologist Oleg Abramov and journalist Kate Greene — were selected from a field of 700 applicants.
In addition to the food studies, crew members served as guinea pigs for space-related technologies ranging from odor-resistant underwear to robotic pets. They conducted scientific field trips on the flanks of the Mauna Loa volcano. Researchers also studied how they interacted amid their isolation, with communication links that were rigged up to simulate the delays caused by light travel time between Earth and Mars.
It'll take months for the researchers to digest all the data, so to speak. But some early findings have already come to light. For example, novelty and creativity will be essential spices when it comes to serving meals on Mars.
"In a setting like this, where you're with the same people in the same place, any novelty is very precious," Hunter said. "They were able to create some of their own novelties through cooking." The crew also took a liking to improvised tortilla wraps, which just might find more of a place on future menus for the International Space Station's astronauts.
The lessons learned during this four-month experiment will be carried over to a $1.2 million series of three simulations, building up to a yearlong stint at the Hawaii habitat. That session is expected to coincide with a yearlong expedition mission on the space station in 2015. The results are likely to be factored into the planning for future space expeditions — along with other space food technologies such as 3-D printing.
You might think that 3-D printing would be the wave of the future for space cuisine, especially if you're a fan of the food replicators seen on "Star Trek." But Hunter thinks that's "the worst idea that I have heard in a long time." In her view, the social interaction that surrounds food preparation is a key part of being human — even when those humans are on Mars.
"I'm interested in finding out to what extent the food culture that our crew developed in the habitat will become part of their permanent diet and lifestyle," she said. "If they do adopt some of the food ways they developed during the study, that means that we've actually developed a 'space cuisine.' It would be lovely to think that what we are doing here is going to be able to stand on its own, either in confined environments on Earth, or in long-term space colonies in the future."
The crew's favorite dishes sound appealing enough to make the grade for outer space. Would they make the grade for your kitchen? Try out these first-place winners from the HI-SEAS recipe contest, and let us know in the comment section. You might have to adjust the recipes for non-dehydrated, non-freeze-dried ingredients:
No-crust quiche muffins
By Lisa Young
- ¼ cup rehydrated onion
- 1 cup rehydrated spinach
- 1 cup rehydrated broccoli
- 1 cup rehydrated mushrooms
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- ¼ tsp salt and pepper
- 1 cup rehydrated cheddar cheese
- ½ cup rehydrated milk powder
- 1 1/3 cup egg crystals + 2 cups water (equivalent to 12 eggs)
- In a pan with olive oil sauté onions, garlic, spinach, mushroom, and broccoli. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- After using non-stick spray or Crisco on the muffin tin, place ~2 T sautéed veggie mix in each muffin cup (note: you can also add bacon bits).
- In a bowl mix the equivalent of 12 eggs and 1/2 c milk together. Then pour the batter into each muffin cup, leaving approximately 1 cm at the top of each muffin.
- Sprinkle approximately 1 tbs cheese on top.
- Bake for 45 minutes (or until done) at 350 degrees F.
- Can be stored in refrigerator or freezer.
Moroccan beef tagine
By Paul Obarowski
First place, soups and stews
- 2½ cups Thrive freeze-dried roast beef with 2 cups water
- ¼ cup dehydrated onions with ½ cup water
- ½ cup dehydrated bell peppers mixed with 1 cup water
- 2 tbsp oil, extra virgin
- 2 tbsp dehydrated garlic
- ½ cup dried apricots
- ½ cup raisins
- 1 cup cashews
- ¼ tsp salt and black pepper
- 2 tsp paprika
- ½ tsp cumin
- 1 tsp powdered ginger
- 1 tsp primario chili pepper
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 sazon goya packet
- Pinch of saffron
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 cup couscous with 1½ cups water
- 1 tbsp cilantro
- 3 cups Basmati rice (made in rice cooker)
- 2 cups water
- In a large container, reconstitute the beef.
- Rough chop the dried apricots.
- In a large heavy bottomed pot, add the garlic and olive oil and set the heat to medium. Once the oil is hot, add the raisins and apricots, covering the bottom of the pot.
- Let them sit there and cook; you’ll want the sugars in these sweet fruits to caramelize. Let the fruit brown without burning.
- Once the fruits have sufficiently been browned, add the dried onions and the dried mixed bell peppers and cook until the onions and peppers begin to develop some color.
- Set the pot to low heat. Add salt and pepper, and stir to coat.
- Add the beef, along with the water. Add cashews, paprika, powdered ginger, sazon goya, cumin, and 2 tablespoons of honey. Add a pinch of saffron (a little goes a long way), along with chili pepper (or cayenne pepper) and cinnamon.
- Add 2 cups water – make sure your pot has enough liquid so that it doesn’t dry up, and is at a slow simmer, covered.
- Let the tagine cook, covered, at as low heat as your stovetop. It should be starting to thicken to a stewlike consistency. If it’s starting to get too thick too early, add some more water.
- Make the Basmati rice in a rice cooker.
- In a saucepan, bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 cups of couscous, remove from the heat and allow to sit, covered, until the couscous absorbs all of the water. Couscous should be light and fluffy, not stuck together. Remove the lid and lightly salt the couscous, add cilantro, and a 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil. Fluff with a fork.
- Serve the tagine over the couscous or basmati rice.
Spam fried rice
By A. Kirk McCarty
First place, main dishes
- 2 cups rice, medium grain – cooked in rice cooker
- 2 tsp olive oil
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ½ cup dehydrated mushrooms + 1 cup water – ½ cup reclaimed
- 4 cups (taken from ½ cup dehydrated peas + ½ cup dehydrated carrots + ½ cup dehydrated sweet corn + boil 6 cups water – 2 cups reclaimed)
- 2 tbsp dehydrated onion (made ½ cup of onions + 1/3 cup water)
- 6 tbsp egg powder + 18 tbsp water
- 1 can turkey spam
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- ½ cup soy sauce with ¼ tsp sesame oil
- Cook rice in rice cooker
- Cook peas, carrots and corn in 4 cups water for 30 minutes or until soft
- Rehydrate onions and mushrooms
- Rehydrate eggs and scramble in 1 tbsp olive oil – set aside
- Cut spam into ¼-inch cubes
- In wok, add 2 tbsp olive oil and sauté spam and 2 tbs onions until browned
- Add mushrooms, and 4 cups vegetable mixture
- Add rice and ¼ cup olive oil and sauté
- Stir in egg and garlic powder
- Add soy sauce and stir-fry a couple of minutes before serving
Lemon dill pasta salad
By Diana Zeimen
First place, side dishes
- 1 box tri-color rotini
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp granulated garlic
- 2 tbsp dried dill
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- ¼ tsp salt to taste or your doctor’s orders
- ¼ cup lemon juice (made from lemon powder)
- ½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, snipped or cut into ½-inch pieces
- ½ cup dehydrated bell peppers + 1 cup water
- ½ cup dehydrated carrots + 1 cup water
- ½ cup dehydrated leeks + 1 cup water
- 1 cup freeze-dried broccoli + 2 cups water
- ½ cup sliced pepperoni
- Cook pasta very al dente
- Reconstitute vegetables.
- Drain and cool both pasta and veggies
- Stir in vegetables, pepperoni (if using), and seasonings.
- Add oil and lemon juice dressing to taste.
- If possible, let stand in a cool place for at least 1 hour or up overnight. Otherwise, serve immediately.
Dark matter cake
By Aquilla Elfindale
First place, desserts
Ingredients: 24 Dark Matter cupcakes:
- 3 cups hazelnut coffee
- 4 cups flour
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 3 tsp baking soda
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- 3 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 ½ cups mayo
Ingredients: Stardust Frosting
- 1/3 cup coconut butter
- 2/3 cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 cups confectioners sugar
- 3 cups hazelnut coffee: Lightly squeeze grounds to get most of the liquid and flavor out
- Mix in bowl: flour, sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, baking soda and salt
- Mix in hazelnut coffee
- Add vanilla extract and mayo and mix until smooth
- Grease cupcake pan or cake pan with mayo or shortening
- Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until skewer come out clean
- Whip coconut butter, oil, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla, add until incorporated, then whip in confectioners’ sugar
- Top cake icing, then powder lightly with cocoa powder or dehydrated fruits
More about space food:
- Aloha, Mars: What we'll eat, drink and play with in space
- NASA funds 3-D printer project for meals in space
For an inside look at the HI-SEAS simulation, check out crew member Kate Greene's dispatches for Discover magazine.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.