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Spring 2012
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Around the Quad

Fake Mars Mission Attracts Hundreds of Gastronauts

By Stacey Shackford

Mars Food
Credit: NASA

Food fatigue can be a challenge on long space missions. Here, astronaut Edward M. (Mike) Fincke, plays with some fruit in the International Space Station.

Researchers at Cornell are working to determine the best way to keep astronauts well-nourished during their journeys to and stays on the Red Planet.

Jean Hunter, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering, and Bruce Halpern, professor of psychology and neurobiology and behavior, have teamed up with Kim Binsted, associate professor of information and computer science at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa, to conduct a NASA-funded study on the diets of mock astronauts in a simulated Mars habitat on the barren lava fields of Hawai’i for four months.

Menu fatigue—the food boredom induced by restricted dietary choice—can put astronauts at risk for reduced food intake and concomitant nutritional deficiencies. The study will assess the palatability of instant and crew-prepared food, determine whether food preferences change over time, and track resources required for meal preparation and cleanup.

Micro-gravity itself is also suspected to reduce astronauts’ pleasure in food by compromising their sense of smell. In space, the body fluids normally held in the legs and feet by gravity redistribute headward, causing nasal congestion. The research team is studying these effects too, using bed-rested subjects at the NASA Flight Analogs Research Center in Galveston, Texas.

A call for volunteers in February garnered more than 600 applicants, and the selected team will begin with a four-day workshop at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, where they will learn to cook interesting, varied meals from shelf-stable ingredients, track their food intake and perform olfactory tests on each other.