Surviving the isolation of space travel

And what does tabasco sauce have to do with it?
29 April 2024

Interview with 

Kate Greene


Space flight


The importance of good food cannot be understated when it comes to space exploration. Because a wholesome and hearty meal can, and I speak from experience here, make or break the quality of a day. And preserving your mental health when you are isolated in a cramped environment with the same group of people for months at a time is essential for successful and productive voyages. Kate Greene is the author of Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars, inspired by a four-month stint inside a simulated Martian habitat as part of the HI-SEAS program, an isolation simulation which seeks to find out the effect that a spacecraft setting has on the individual and groups of spacefarers. Kate found herself involved with the program after becoming fascinated by a very unusual question…

Kate - Back in 2011, I was scrolling Twitter and I came across an article and the basic premise was, why do astronauts like to use a lot of Tabasco sauce on their food? Was this gravity, was this boredom? Did they need the spice to get something exciting in their senses? And as I read to the end of the article, I saw that there was a call for participants in a simulated Mars mission to actually study potential future food systems. This was a NASA funded study, and it would take place in a dome on Mauna Loa in Hawaii in the year 2013. And I thought, I have to apply to this.

Will - So when that was the case, when you applied and you're successful, and they said, we want you on board, what was your residence like?

Kate - It was a crew of six people total, and we spent four months in isolation mostly to test these potential future food systems. So for instance, we were looking at the question of, are you going to get bored with your food? And so we had two different food systems that we tried out, like the 'just add water and eat' meals, which is what astronauts on the ISS, the International Space Station eat, or could we make our own meals with preserved material? So preserved ingredients like dehydrated cheese or dehydrated vegetables, flour, and that we would just creatively cook up a new meal, like make a pizza, or make a cake to celebrate a birthday and this like sort of creative food system. Get rid of some of that boredom. So we were really looking at questions of food boredom as the fundamental study, but there were a tonne of other studies that participated in studies that we brought ourselves and also research that other researchers gave to us to be participants in and produce data for.

Will - So what was your preferred meal of choice then?

Kate - I would go down to the kitchen and I would make myself an omelette in the style of Julia Child the French omelette. I would use the somehow delicious powdered eggs. It was actually, these powdered eggs were kind of a miracle, the way that they're made, almost like slow batch dehydration of a mixed up egg. And I would rehydrate that and sprinkle rehydrated cheddar cheese and parsley on top, salt and pepper. I would have Earl Gray tea and finn crisps with a layer of rehydrated butter and a jam. And I loved this meal so much. I would sit there and I would look out the one and only window we had onto the red rocky vista of Mauna Loa, and imagine actually being back on Earth.

Will - It sounds like a genuinely positive experience and something that everyone handled really well. And so I don't want to sow any seeds of doubt here, but I do feel compelled to ask, do you think there is an upper limit? Do you think if you got to, say, a year, you'd be like, 'no, get me out.'

Kate - Well, the HI-SEAS project did increase the amount of time that crews were under isolation. So there was an eight month mission and then a year long mission. And that year long mission did endure a significant difficulty with the personality and crew cohesion, there was some breakdown. So it's kind of unclear if there is an upper limit or what sort of environment could be sort of engineered or designed to maybe increase the amount of time that people are in isolated environments. So in a productive and successful way, but also like how you select the people to do that. I mean, these are actually still open questions that are being looked at. NASA has studied human adaptation in space, and one of the things is humans have evolved to be adaptable to a changing environment. And when you're on a long space mission, you have an environment that more or less stays the same. And there are other ways, other experiences that also create something similar. I think many of us experienced this during the pandemic. While you had some ability to move about, there was a certain sameness to the day. And when you don't have an environment that's changing, that's constantly sort of like asking you to adapt and evolve, like a very serious kind of boredom can set in that maybe is difficult even for the people who think that they don't get bored to identify. And so one thing that is actually really important is to make sure that you can mix up your environment, change things up and find surprises, find those things that challenge you and make you want to change and adapt and grow. Because those are things that, as it is now, space living systems don't offer a tonne of that, but it might be a good idea to have those included in any space mission.

Will - So enrichment might be the key, we should get a coconut with some straw in it for the future astronauts.

Kate - Right? And, you know, like celebrations, like look for ways to break up the calendar. Are you going to celebrate birthdays, half birthdays? What kind of anniversaries do you want to celebrate? And how are you going to celebrate them? What different ways are you going to celebrate them? I mean, if you think of the office party, it's kind of like how you go from one environment to another, but in the same space and with the same people. It's a real shift of energy. Maybe lighting, design, music. We on HI-SEAS had inflatable furniture, so we were able to move our furniture around and reconfigure our environment, and that was pretty important. We had movie nights, that sort of thing. So it's the enrichment. Enrichment in your environment and your activities. And with the Tabasco sauce enrichment in your food.


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