Horrigan: Houston, we have a problem: Spam

St. Louis Post-DispatchAugust 20, 2013 

MBR

Kevin Horrigan

KAREN ELSHOUT — KRT

Somewhere in this favored land today, perhaps in college or high school or even grade school, are young people who one day will become the first American astronauts to travel to Mars. They’d better like Spam.

In a stunning tribute to scientific research and $1 million of NASA’s money, six research scientists emerged after 118 days in a fake Mars mission space cocoon on the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano last week with the news that if you’re going to boldly go where no man has gone before, you should absolutely bring along a lot of Spam.

Yes, Spam, that canned meat product first produced by Hormel Foods in 1937, the one that got Allied forces and the homefront through World War II, that became immortalized by a Viking choir in a Monty Python sketch in 1970 (“Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!”), which somehow led to its name being adopted for unwanted email. That Spam.

You won’t be able to go to Mars without it. Well, you could, but one finding of the four-month first phase of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project is that Spam will be vital to your health.

This vital scientific study was designed to test what kind of meals astronauts could eat without getting bored, sick or otherwise bummed out because the food was so lousy.

A recipe contest was held, entries being limited to the sorts of food a spacecraft could carry without refrigeration. Among the winners: the Spam ’n Egg baowich breakfast, Bean Soup with Spam and Biscuits, Spam Fried Rice and Spam Sushi.

Houston, we have a problem.

Admittedly, I am way past the age where I need to worry about being selected as a Mars astronaut, to say nothing of my lack of physical conditioning, scientific knowledge, courage or the slightest interest in such a career. The Spam thing would be the least of my disqualifiers.

But apparently lots of people have all of these qualities. More than 700 of them applied for the six slots on the HI-SEAS fake-trip-to-Mars experiment on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa. Each one of the winners got a little cubicle to sleep in. Other than that, there was no privacy and very little to do inside the bubble they called home. There were three men and three women, but we don’t want to go there. This was about science.

And recipes. And personal hygiene. It’s the little things that count.

NASA currently has only speculative plans and very little money for an actual Mars mission. Nobody has any idea what it would cost. But in an era of deficit fever where even food stamps are subject to congressional budget impasse, it’s not even worth arguing about.

Nevertheless … science marches on. With current technology, a trip to Mars would take about eight months. Figure on staying there 14 months or so while the Earth and Mars come close enough for a return trip. Then there’s another eight months home. This will require a lot of Spam, a lot of water (figure on a Navy shower every two days) and other foodstuffs, some changes of clothing (no Laundromats in space) and other logistical issues.

But, just in case, NASA made two grants, totaling $2.2 million, to Cornell University and the University of Hawaii for the HI-SEAS studies to study some of these things. Some people might regard this as a tad premature, developing menus when you don’t have a spaceship, but science will not be deterred.

You can’t do much cooking in the zero-gravity trip to and from Mars, so the astronauts will mostly eat prepared foods. While they’re on the surface of Mars, though, it’ll be time to break out the recipes — and not just for yucks. The HI-SEAS Website explains:

“(H)umans eating a restricted diet over a period of months ultimately experience ‘menu fatigue,’ also known as food monotony. They tire of eating even foods they normally enjoy, and their overall food intake declines, putting them at risk for nutritional deficiency, loss of bone and muscle mass, and reduced physical capabilities. Moreover, all foods decline in nutritional and eating quality over time, and only a few of the many available astronaut foods have the 3- to 5-year shelf life required of foods for a Mars mission.”

On “Star Trek,” the answer to feeding the crew was “food synthesizers,” and later “food replicators,” which seemed to work just fine, although it’s possible the writers could have just been making stuff up. It happens.

But in May, NASA — which seems to be worrying quite a bit about the food problem — awarded a $125,000 grant to a Texas man who says he can build a 3-D food printer. The device will use cartridges full of shelf-stable powders and oils to print pizzas.

Spam pizza probably, washed down with Tang.

Contact Mr. Horrigan at khorrigan@post-dispatch.com.

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