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Eat like a Martian

How to adapt astronaut diets for pandemic-era pantries

By Heather Kapplow

Seven years ago, Sian Proctor became one of the few people who has experienced life the way astronauts would on Mars. A geoscience professor, Proctor spent four months as an analog astronaut, living at NASA’s HI-SEAS, its Martian base simulation habitat in Hawaii. The crew’s mission was to research food strategies for long-duration space flight. They looked at strategies for extreme environments on Earth, where access to food is profoundly limited.

They spent those four months working with an interplanetary pantry restricted to shelf-stable ingredients — cooking under the kinds of limitations, like restricted water and power, that astronauts would face living inside a spaceship or a Martian base. They ate Spam and egg sandwiches, with buns made from scratch and eggs reconstituted from egg crystals, and a Moroccan beef dish made with freeze-dried beef and dehydrated apricots.

Two years later, Proctor appeared as a guest chef in another experiment: an art-and-dining project called the “Menu for Mars Kitchen.” The immersive installation at a Brooklyn gallery looked, felt, and operated like a spaceship’s kitchen. Its pantry was stocked with shelf-stable, zero-gravity-friendly food products. Background music had been commissioned to sound like a spaceship’s ventilation system. To the right of the prep table, across from the bucket-cubby pantry, stood a lively cricket farm, a Mars-sustainable protein source. Visiting artist-chefs produced dishes such as “martian matcha microwave cakes” (made with green tea and dried egg and milk powder) and “gentle millet” (featuring dried vanilla protein powder, dehydrated rosebuds, and crystallized ginger).

The goal was to get everyday people to think about eating like astronauts — a project that looks prescient at a time when our relationship with food and food shopping has changed. In the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, when isolation felt profound, and grocery deliveries were hard to come by, food supply chains loomed large in our daily lives, and meals played a huge role in our efforts at normalcy. And today, amid threats of renewed shutdowns, the lessons of Mars dining are as relevant as ever.

Proctor’s work for NASA dealt not just with the need for shelf-stable pantries, but the emotional aspects of daily meals. “If you’re going to be in isolation,” she says, “and you’re eating food that doesn’t satisfy you from a cultural standpoint, or you aren’t being mentally satisfied with a meal, that can lead to psychological issues.” Her mission also addressed “menu fatigue,” a side effect of having your pantry limited by necessity, and the fact that familiar foods have different textures, tastes, or smells when eaten in a different environment.

Proctor suggests people start their Mars-style preparations today, by swapping out whatever they keep in their freezers — frozen corn, frozen peas, frozen strawberries — for freeze-dried equivalents.

Some keys to food resiliency emerged from the mission’s work — including freeze-drying technology, which removes unnecessary water weight from food and eliminates the need to refrigerate it while it’s stored, transported, and stored again.

“We throw out a lot of food,” Proctor points out. “In the United States, 40% of food gets wasted — 30% worldwide — and yet we can’t feed everybody. If we took a third of that food and freeze-dried it, making it shelf-stable for years, think of what we could do with that.” Proctor says that if people got their fresh food locally, and otherwise bought only shelf-stable, freeze-dried foods, we’d more easily weather disasters.

Proctor suggests people start their Mars-style preparations today, by swapping out whatever they keep in their freezers — frozen corn, frozen peas, frozen strawberries — for freeze-dried equivalents. She says we won’t lose any flavor or texture with these swaps. To keep things from getting dull, she says, spices are key. “You can have rice or noodles as staples, but you can make them very different depending on the spices you have.”

The “Menu for Mars Kitchen” exhibition, started by New York City-based artists Heidi Neilson and Doug Paulson, was an effort to show shelf-stable food’s creative possibilities. Neilson’s art projects had been focused on outer space for many years, and Paulson’s practice focused on immigration; together, they wondered what people might eat if they migrated to Mars. So in 2014, they launched a participatory project called “Menu for Mars Supper Club,” throwing supper-club parties at restaurants that served food from countries with national space programs: China, India, Russia. Each party featured a guest expert: a horticulturist, a space nutritionist, a culinary anthropologist.

The project culminated in the month-long “Menu for Mars Kitchen” exhibition, which featured regular tasting events, with food created by participating artists. A test-kitchen favorite was tamarind shrimp onigiri made with dehydrated shrimp. A seaweed-based, Tang-flavored version of Jell-O received quite a bit less audience enthusiasm.

I took part in one of these events as an artist-chef, and I’m proud to say that my cocktail featuring a dried West African fruit called a miracle berry (because eating it magically changes the flavors of things from sour to sweet) was a smashing success. Better yet, the cricket-infused pasta dish I labored over got as many “mmmms” as “ewwwws.”

The visiting artist-chefs received tasting notes from live audiences. Samples of each dish were vacuum-sealed in plastic and shipped off to NASA.

Looking back, Neilson and Paulson see their time in the Menu for Mars project as good preparation for a pandemic-era shutdown.

“I became a little bit more inventive as a cook,” says Paulson. “I shouldn’t really be going to the store any more than necessary, so I’ve been making some unusual combinations of food.” For example, he confesses to having recently made a pizza with a jar of Indian “Masala simmer sauce” in place of tomato sauce— a substitution he wasn’t likely to have attempted before his Menu for Mars days. “It was delicious.”

Southwestern Chicken Chili Soup

Sian Proctor hosted a recipe contest from HI-SEAS and produced a cookbook, Meals For Mars, featuring dishes that make tasty use of freeze-dried ingredients and could be cooked in a spaceship kitchen.

Proctor’s cookbook recipe for southwestern chicken chili soup makes two hearty portions. If you’re not living in space, you can enhance it with fresh garnishes (like jalapeno!) from your garden or local farmer’s market. To enhance this recipe at home, Proctor created a guacamole dip using freeze-dried corn mixed with fresh avocado and cilantro from her backyard garden. She recommends a few margaritas to complement the meal.

1 cup freeze-dried chopped chicken
1 cup freeze-dried black beans
1 cup instant brown rice
1/2 cup freeze-dried tomato dices
1/2 cup freeze-dried red bell peppers
1/2 cup freeze-dried sweet corn
2 tbsp freeze-dried chopped onions
1 tbsp freeze-dried garlic
1/4 cup tomato sauce powder
1 package of chili seasoning
6 cups of chicken broth

Add all contents into a single pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Garnish and serve.

Astronaut Reviver Cocktail with Miracle Fruit Garnish

As a visiting artist at the Menu for Mars Kitchen, I worked with a collaborator to develop two recipes for public tasting events. One, Jiminy Mac & Cheese, was a version of macaroni and cheese with cricket powder for extra protein. (It was fully edible, but not worth reproducing here, because macaroni and cheese without cricket powder tastes much better!)

So I’ll share the other recipe, for the Astronaut Reviver cocktail. It’s a twist on the classic Corpse Reviver #2, an early-morning gin cocktail, adapted to the environment of Mars. At one of the Menu for Mars Supper Club meetings, diners learned that, because Mars smells like hydrogen peroxide and taste and smell are very hard to segregate, astronauts living at a Martian base would live with a pervasive taste of hydrogen peroxide in their mouths. This cocktail recipe only varies from the traditional Corpse Reviver #2 by including the miracle berry to make it more playful, and draw attention to how changeable taste is. American astronauts are not currently allowed to drink alcohol in space, but during long-term space travel, this rule may shift.

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. Lillet Blanc (can substitute with Cocchi or a sweet white vermouth)
1 oz. bottled or reconstituted lemon juice
1 dash absinthe
1 miracle berry

Shake with ice, strain, and pour. Garnish with a miracle berry, in fresh or dried form, or serve with miracle fruit in pill form, on the side. Taste the drink first, then eat the berry or take the pill, wait a bit, and taste the cocktail again. Miracle fruit temporarily alters a person’s flavor perception from sweet to sour — so it’s been added to the cocktail because it might be a nice change for Mars colonists subsisting on food with minimal variety.

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Heather Kapplow is an artist and writer based in Boston.

Image by NASA


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