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Fall 2012
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NASA Food Scientist Puts Variety on the Menu for Missions to Mars

By Holly McIntyre

Michele Perchonok
Credit: Courtesy of NASA

Even on Mars, an astronaut’s got to eat.

Michele Perchonok, Advanced Food Technology Project scientist at NASA, is working to ensure that the astronauts of the future eat a healthy diet that’s tasty yet efficient in its preparation and storage.

Perchonok, who graduated from Cornell with an M.S. in food science in 1980 and a Ph.D. in 1983, has worked for NASA for 12 years, designing food systems for shuttle and exploration missions.

Today, much of the concentration is long-duration space exploration in the future, namely missions to Mars in the 2030s, which present the new challenge of providing food systems to support years-long journeys.

“We’re looking at how much of the food for a Mars surface mission should be processed packaged food systems versus a bio-regenerative food system, which is growing fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.

On a mission to Mars, astronauts may be able to grow their own food as well as bring along raw ingredients that they can make into tofu, bread, pasta, and flour.

“They may make a meal with fresh pasta with a pasta sauce made from a tomato and green onions and bell peppers in the garden and then maybe make bread from the flour also. Maybe even have cookies at the end of the meal,” Perchonok said.

However, there are several challenges to feeding a hungry crew in space. The food needs a five-year shelf life and enough variety to stay interesting.

“It’s not as if the crew can go to a restaurant if they get tired of our food,” she said.

Research under way at Cornell is helping to address these challenges. Perchonok has collaborated with Jean Hunter, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering, to research why astronauts lose their sense of taste in space. “We’ve gotten anecdotal reports in orbit that food doesn’t taste the same,” Perchonok said. “Some of that is likely due to the fact that they’re not smelling the food.”

In low gravity more body fluids shift to the head, affecting the sense of smell. Early in a mission, astronauts often develop round “Charlie Brown” faces because of the fluid, and they feel like they have a cold, Perchonok said.

Hunter’s research is testing whether this affects the amount astronauts can taste.

Volunteers will spend several weeks in a bed with their heads lower than their feet. The Cornell team will measure how fluid buildup in the head affects their sense of smell and how long that effect lasts.

“We’ll get a better understanding of how much of sensory loss of flavor is due to the fluid shift and how much might be due to other pieces,” Perchonok said.

Ties to Cornell have been a continued asset, Perchonok said.

“I got an excellent education at Cornell,” she said. “In addition, the faculty at Cornell are super. They’re very well respected in the food science community. To know them and be able to turn to them if I have question or in a networking capacity is so useful.”