Science TED Fellows

Spatzle in space: Fellows Friday with Angelo Vermeulen

Angelo Vermeulen taking soil samples for microbial analysis during the shakedown mission at MDRS in Utah. Photo: Kate Greene.

Can real food be cooked on Mars? Thanks to the work of artist, biologist and space scientist Angelo Vermeulen (watch his TED talk), the answer may one day be yes.

When the Universities of Cornell and Hawai’i put out a call for participants for their NASA-funded HI-SEAS Mars simulation, investigating the feasibility of real food on Mars, Vermeulen — known for his Biomodd art installations creating symbiotic relationships between plants and computers — landed the crew commander position. The HI-SEAS crew has now been in training for months and, on April 15, they’ll enter the simulation habitat itself — located in Hawaii — for four months.

Vermeulen will be blogging about his experience from within the simulation for the TED Fellows blog. In the meantime, we ask him about the mission, what it means to be a space crew commander and why boredom in isolation isn’t actually a problem.

What will the HI-SEAS simulation be investigating and teaching us?

The Mars simulation we’re setting up is called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation or HI-SEAS. It’s primarily a food study. One of the main problems during long-term space travel is so-called menu fatigue. It’s basically astronauts getting tired of their food and losing appetite. By the way astronauts do not eat out of tubes and do not swallow food pills. That’s an old persistent cliché which is still in a lot of people’s minds. It’s almost an archetype of astronaut life. However this dates to the ’50s and ’60s, and has been long abandoned. The food that astronauts currently eat is pretty good, but it’s all pre-prepared. It’s add-water-and-heat, and you have your meal. But even those meals, even when they try to make variations, after a couple of months people get tired of that, and so they start to eat less. As a consequence they might also perform less, and jeopardize the mission.

For example, in the Mars-500 experiment — an isolation study of 500 days near Moscow, a collaboration between Europe and Russia — food became the item that people constantly talked about. Food is absolutely crucial to the psychology of your crew, and you need to handle that carefully.

One of the solutions could be to allow the crew to cook. Because cooking empowers you over your food. You can make endless variations, and there’s an interesting bonus: it improves social cohesion. You talk about food, you share food. It’s a basic human thing. The reason that space agencies have been holding it off are twofold. First of all, current human space exploration is done in microgravity conditions — like in the ISS — and as such cooking has hardly been possible. One needs a good deal of gravity to cook meals. In HI-SEAS we’re talking about simulating life on the surface of Mars, not about traveling to Mars. And since there’s a decent amount of gravity on Mars (38% of Earth’s gravity), you can do your regular cooking.

So what you’re doing is not for people in a space vehicle.
No, it’s not for the transit phase. It’s for an actual stay on a planetary surface, such as Mars, but also the Moon. The second reason space agencies have been holding off cooking is because it takes more time, water and energy, and all of those things are extremely precious in outer space. A pre-prepared meal is indeed way more efficient. But it’s a tradeoff: if your crew becomes unhappy and starts to perform less, you might want to invest a little bit by allotting more time and resources for preparing food.

We are actually the first crew in the history of space exploration to be allowed to cook properly. Obviously we’re not real astronauts, we’re simulating astronaut life. But still. This is the very first, very thorough study of the potential of cooking. That’s the baseline research — that’s why we’re funded.

Angelo Vermeulen growing vegetables inside the greenhouse at MDRS in very harsh winter conditions. Photo: Sian Proctor.

What else does the mission entail?

While we’ll spend most of our time researching food in different ways, there is a second layer of research, and that’s our personal research. Each crew member had to define his own or her own research program.

Normally in space exploration you’re strictly an operator, and you do what you’re told. But in HI-SEAS, we get a higher level of autonomy, and being able to define your own research is a clear example of that. In my case, I chose to research the potential of remote operated gardening — basically gardening using robots over long distances in a separate location. It’s the first step to semi-autonomy where robots can start taking care of crops, partially by themselves.

The personal research programs vary a lot. Roboticist and crew engineer Simon Engler will investigate the use of rovers when we’re doing so-called EVAs or explorations outside of the habitat. Crew biologist Yajaira Sierra Sastre is doing research on bacteria and nano-materials. She’s more specifically researching the use of antimicrobial garments. We’re testing NASA’s Advanced Clothing System for that purpose.

You’ll have a lab?

We have a lab, yeah. Crammed with all the other stuff in a 36’ diameter dome. The last layer of research is opportunistic research, very characteristic for space exploration. This means that other institutes, agencies, and researchers use the opportunity of the HI-SEAS isolation campaign to run research on us. We’re glad to help out because the more publications we can churn out after HI-SEAS, the better for science, for progress, and for future funding.

So while you’re there, what will the space conditions simulation be like? Will you be wearing suits, or will the atmosphere be different?

Inside the hab we’ll wear regular clothing. Once we want to go outside of the hab, we have to go through an airlock and wear space suits. They’re not real space suits — those are multi-million-dollar devices — but we’ll be wearing suits that simulate space suits, inhibiting our movements, with a glass helmet, and so on. We’re trying to get as close to the real experience of living on Mars. Essentially we’ll be subjected to restrictions that you would also experience in space exploration missions.

If you’re growing food on Mars, the environmental conditions will be very different and you’ll have to work around that by using shielded greenhouses for example. Here I have to add something about my personal research project. In fact I cannot access the food that I’m growing in the remote-operated farm.

Why not?

Because the food study is focusing on shelf stable ingredients. These are ingredients that don’t need refrigeration and that can be kept at room temperature for multiple years. Moreover we’re only using food that is relatively light. And then you end up with things like flour, rice, honey, and lots of freeze-dried ingredients. And that’s what we have to work with during the 4 months of the study. Mixing in fresh vegetables would obviously confound the study, and therefore I can’t harvest my own robot-grown plants. We can grow sprouts though, and this will be the closest we get to fresh food.

Crew of the HI-SEAS Mars mission simulation inside the MDRS training facility in Utah. The lighting devices are part of a sleep study. From left to right: Yajaira Sierra Sastre, Oleg Abramov, Simon Engler, Angelo Vermeulen, Kate Greene and Sian Proctor. Photo: Sian Proctor.

And you’re crew commander. What are your responsibilities, and why do you think you were chosen for this role?

Crew commander is a central role in isolation and space missions in general. It’s a bit like the captain on a ship, quite a comparable role. But with this difference: in space missions you’re dealing with highly trained, highly accomplished people. As a commander in such a situation, you simply can’t start the day by delivering orders to everybody. That’s not how it works. You’re much more of a facilitator and mediator.

The reason I was offered the role of crew commander was because of my experience in community building in complex conditions, such as in Biomodd and other projects. I worked in the Philippines for a long time, in a volcanic disaster zone in Indonesia, and in many other places around the world, always with the goal of building communities around challenging art/science projects. Last year I’ve created a new Biomodd version in New York City with a heterogeneous group of collaborators with culturally, socially and professionally very different backgrounds. In this way I have quite some experience keeping groups together, and that definitely helped.

How has doing this research changed your perspective?

It’s changed my perspective on designing spaceships. Every engineer that works on spaceships should go through a similar isolation experience. Through physically living in a confined off-grid space with people, you come to realize so many things. A lot of assumptions actually seem to be wrong. A classic one: most people think when you go into an isolation study, you’ll be bored for sure. It’s a universal thing, people ask me this question all the time. However, it’s rather the contrary, you hardly have enough time. The crew gets up at seven, and almost every day we work until 10. By  then we’re all pretty exhausted. We have to almost enforce a day off, like on Sundays, otherwise we would just keep on experimenting and doing research. So boredom is really not an issue at all.

In the photo, you’re taking soil samples in a spacesuit, doing extra-vehicular activities. If the mission is about cooking, why do you need to do this?

It’s to increase the fidelity of the mission. If you’re doing a food study that’s supposed to be useful for a stay on Mars, you have to do all the things you would actually do when you were there. Or at least try to get as close as possible to that kind of life. Otherwise the results wouldn’t be really relevant.

But would you personally like to be shot into space?

I wouldn’t mind.

Angelo will be blogging for the TED Fellows blog on a regular basis from within the HI-SEAS simulation. Stay tuned for transmissions!