Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, crew scientist, administers a nasal patency test to me earlier this year during our two-week practice mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Photo by Sian Proctor.

Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, crew scientist, administers a nasal patency test to me earlier this year during our two-week practice mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.
Photo by Sian Proctor

Why Astronauts Need Good Noses

It’s been a little over three weeks since we first stepped into our simulated Mars habitat on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The initial flurry of activity—unpacking equipment, setting up a kitchen and lab,  and inventorying four months of food—has subsided. The six of us on this crew are now in the groove of daily living.

Our Mars days resemble, in many ways, a day on Earth. We cook. We do dishes. Take out the trash. We fix leaky pipes. We work. But we’re also participants in a study to help NASA explore new ways to feed astronauts on a lunar or Martian outpost. As such, we fill out a lot of surveys and are subject to a number of tests. This week, we started inspection of our noses.

The sense of smell and the shape and function of the nose are important to this food study. It’s known that astronauts tend to eat less in space, but the culprit is unclear. Is it because their sense of smell changes as microgravity shifts fluids around in their heads? Or is it because they’re bored with a limited selection of meal options, some of which taste better than others?

Yesterday’s lunch for the HI-SEAS crew: dehydrated turkey, freeze-dried broccoli and potato granules, rehydrated and topped with some instant  Photo by Sian

The boredom question is being addressed by the design of the HI-SEAS food study. We’re allowed to cook creatively with shelf-stable ingredients for about half the time during this mission. The other half we eat just-add-water meals. We report on our mood, productivity, and general health as well as other measures throughout the day. So if there’s a difference between creative-cooking days and just-add-water days, it will likely show up in the surveys and other metrics.

The fluid-shifting question is being addressed by a set of tests identical to those underway at NASA’s Flight Analog Research Unit in Galveston, TX. At FARU, Bryan Caldwell, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell, conducts bed-rest studies. This is the sort of research that requires subjects to lie in beds for weeks and months, heads angled down ever-so-slightly to simulate low gravity. In this state, muscles atrophy and fluids shift just as they would in space.

To read the ending of Kate’s Discover Magazine blog click here: Why Astronauts Need Good Noses