Four months into the pandemic, you might be feeling like you never want to cook again. It’s hard to be inventive when your grocery runs are limited — and your funds might be, too. This kind of food fatigue is very familiar to Kate Greene. “You have to recognize that it’s a lot easier to open up a pouch of food and eat from it than to cook for every single meal,” she told Digital Trends.
In 2013, Greene spent four months in a geodesic dome on the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa. In her new book, Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth, she collects her experiences in a series of essays about isolation, gastronomy, tedium, and communication.
Greene and five others were part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission. NASA uses the habitat and the area’s Mars-like ambiance to learn how astronauts could better cope with physical and psychological stresses on a trip to the red planet. The focus of this particular mission was food. Astronauts tend to lose weight in space, and NASA wanted to see if collecting data on the HI-SEAS residents could help them figure out why.
“There’s some thought that if you allow for some variation in the menu, then astronauts will take in more calories, maintain their weight, stay healthier,” said Greene. “But there’s also this idea that it could just be really good for crew cohesion to have meals be more of a social focal point.” Instead of pouches of rehydratable food or meal-replacement bars, maybe including some freeze-dried and shelf-stable ingredients would combat the feeling of meal monotony. Dr. Sian Proctor, a geology professor and one of Greene’s geodome roommates, made a video series called Meals for Mars, where the rest of the crew judged the meals she created based on viewers’ recipes. In one video, she makes (rehydrated) beef stew, thickened with oatmeal.
Even with a bit more variety, there may be some physical reasons astronauts start eating less in space. “Much of the food study was actually looking at our noses and the way that we smell,” said Greene. Astronauts tend to suffer from nasal congestion. “That might be why they like hot sauce,” she said. “astronauts love Tabasco sauce and horseradish. It’s been documented.”
To track the HI-SEAS crew members’ sense of smell, they had to regularly participate in tests. Covered paper cups with small holes held the odors of soy sauce, lemon juice, and other foods. In the book, Greene describes squeezing one cup and being overcome by the scent of pineapple. “Something inside me rearranged itself, and a tear slid down my cheek,” she wrote. It evoked memories of barbecues with grilled pineapple. Over time, she had more and more difficulty identifying the aromas.
It’s easy to see unintended parallels between Greene’s mission and the current pandemic. “First of all, we’re living on a completely different planet than we were in late 2019. All of us are,” she said. People have to put on protective gear before going outside. People are isolated from friends and family. The difference, of course, is that Greene knew exactly when her mission would end.
It takes months to get to Mars, and the planet is so far away that there would be a communication delay between astronauts and mission control. HI-SEAS simulated that delay, including contact with loved ones. Greene could email her wife, but she couldn’t chat via video or phone. There’s a reason she references Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to Antarctica. “The best analog for Mars exploration are actually these polar expeditions,” she said, “and in particular, the style of communication back home. I mean, those explorers were cut off completely from communication back back home.”
Though avenues of communication have improved since 1914, Greene uses a particular word, “technoschmerz,” to describe the pain that accompanies technology frustration. It’s a particular type of pain, like the loneliness invoked by someone not responding to a text or the irritation that crops up when a call keeps dropping. It’s particularly acute with social media, she said: “You can see it when Facebook reminds me that it’s my dead brother’s birthday or shows me a picture of us from long ago, just out of the blue.”
Even while communicating with her family during HI-SEAS, Greene said it could be hard to connect emotionally. “You start to have a sense that people on the outside aren’t experiencing that — can’t even understand what you’re experiencing on the inside,” she said. “This is a common thing that people have different experiences, and you can’t possibly know how hard it is.”
The loneliness, the irritation, it’s something Greene felt on the mission but is feeling in the pandemic, too. At least, her book shows, you’re not the only one feeling that way. It’s documented.