How Nasa uses the experiences of Victorian sailors to prepare for life on Mars

Finally, it was at Cook’s insistence that the men attempted to break out of the pack ice, a Herculean endeavour that required sawing through more than a mile’s worth of ice. 

In his reports for Nasa, Stuster has based a number of recommendations specifically on the Belgica voyage, drawing from Cook’s observations and interventions. Many of them have to do with the menu aboard long-duration missions. Indeed, one of the first signs of trouble aboard the Belgica was when the men grew tired of their insipid, spongey canned food, to the point of disgust. “We despise all articles which come out of tin,” Cook wrote. “The stomach demands things with a natural fibre, or some tough, gritty substance,” observed Cook. “At this time, as a relief, we would have taken kindly to something containing pebbles or sand. How we longed to use our teeth!”

In his surveys of astronauts, Stuster heard very similar complaints. He found that space travellers tire easily of their food and crave crunchy items, which are not ideal in zero-gravity situations, where free-floating crumbs can find their way into machinery. 

In long-term missions to hostile environments, meals are occasions for conviviality and enjoyment. They provide structure. But when people stop taking pleasure from food, when dinner becomes a source of dread rather than pleasure, that structure breaks down. 

Inspired by Cook, Stuster has urged Nasa to seek out variety in food, both in taste and in texture. Like the Belgica’s doctor, he recommends that space programmes source provisions from different purveyors. “Even different entrees made in the same factory will end up tasting very similar,” he says. The European Space Agency seems to have understood the lesson: when SpaceX ferried four astronauts from various nations to the International Space Station in April, the ESA provided zero-gravity-appropriate meals specially created by all-star French chefs, including beef bourguignon and almond tarts with caramelised pears.

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