Published August 09, 2012
A Puerto Rican scientist will be in charge of creating the menu for the first crewed mission to Mars.
Yajaira Sierra Sastre, a 35-year-old native of Arroyo, Puerto Rico, was selected from among a group of 700 scientists to be part of the six-member crew of the HI-SEAS, or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, mission, which NASA will undertake in 2013.
Her task will be to find the best way to keep the astronauts well fed and prevent them from getting bored with the menu during the Mars mission scheduled for 2030 and calculated to last some 2 1/2 years.
"I'm very excited about this project. In fact, I've already cooked rice and beans in the Puerto Rican style and also Spanish paella, and my companions liked both dishes a lot," Sierra told Efe.
Sierra, who has a PhD in nanotechnology from Cornell University, says that although cooking has never been her strong suit, the idea of mixing ingredients and achieving an exquisite result has become a new way to use her knowledge.
"We will be living in solitude, set apart on some volcanic terrain in Hawaii and it's the most similar (spot) on Earth to the surface of Mars," she said.
She said that once at the site, the group of scientists will lose frequent and direct contact with the outside world.
"We will simulate a life like the one the astronauts would live on Mars, without the Internet, telephones, or contact with our loved ones, and with communications with delays of 15 minutes with Earth, which is the approximate time that it would take (to communicate) between the two planets," she added.
That is, in part, why Sierra's experiment takes on even more scientific value, she said, given that food not only satisfies a physical need and is vital for keeping people healthy but also it plays an important role in one's emotional state.
NASA has found that astronauts on board the International Space Station get tired of eating the same thing every day, and that can affect their health due to the risk of losing bone and muscle mass.
"We have to seek solutions to the tedium of the menu, because it's vital for them to be well nourished on a mission to Mars, since it's such a long trip," Sierra said.
The Red Planet has enough gravity to allow water to be boiled and to cook dry, seasoned food there, for example, with previously dehydrated garlic, onions and cilantro, she added.
The scientist will also take advantage of her time on the mission to study the properties of materials and the use of nanotechnology in the manufacture in space of light fabrics resistant to odors, stains and bacteria.
"The evocation of the odors of home, the seasonings and even the act of getting together to cook can be factors that would help the astronauts survive the emotional burden they will take with them on a trip to Mars," said Sierra, who says she has dreamed of being an astronaut since she was a little girl.