Keith Cowing's Devon Island Journal 19 July 2003: Illness, Good Food, and Morale


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NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef
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The twin latrine tents - which I set up when we arrived (L) - and the "pee tank" (R). I made lots of visits to these tents.
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Food inventory underway soon after we arrived. There is a lot of food here.
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A bag of Tang - with a small leak
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Tuna
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Fruit Cocktail
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ISS Expedition 7 astronaut Ed Lu uses chopsticks. I brought a pair with me to Devon Island to fish out pieces of seaweed from my miso soup.
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Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu share a meal.
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Earth's Orbital Spice and Hot Sauce Collection. The large red container is "Sriracha" which is "made from sun ripen chilies which are ground into a smooth paste along with garlic and packaged in a convenient squeeze bottle" according to the manufacturer. My wife and I have a large bottle in our fridge at home. Yum.
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A tube of Garlic Paste labeled "For Sox (Expedition crew member Ken Bowersox) from Ann".

By Keith Cowing, kcowing@reston.com

I got sick a few days after arrival. Dysentery. As is often the case here, you just ignore a lot of things that you'd use as an excuse to take it easy back home. Since I was rather busy, I just ignored my problem. After a day or two, and some Imodium, my illness cleared up. I then ate in the mess tent again. Shortly thereafter the symptoms returned. The menu up here is heavy on meat. "Its all the meat - three meals a day" I told myself - and others.

Not my normal fare (sushi and my wife's cooking). So, in order to let my system calm down, I went several days eating only soups and noodles and things I made myself using hot water - the same water used for cooking.

After several days I felt great again and went out on a wild muddy traverse wherein I rode my ATV like a rodeo horse as I got out of one mud trap after another. That night I ate in the mess tent - but I only ate the vegetables. Once again, I promptly had a return of symptoms. Since folks tend to keep inner turmoils to themselves I did not know if anyone else was sick. I told Melanie, our cook, just in case.

By now I had been sick on and off for more than a week. Every time I ate cooked food I got sick. I did not get sick eating packaged foods. After three data points, I was not prepared to risk yet another bout of dysentery, so I opted for things I could scrounge for.

Trust me, there is a lot of food here - fruit bars, oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, noodles, and a large cache of miso soup I brought with me. There is also MREs and leftover packaged astronaut food from NASA (the "Chilean Sea Bass" is awful). Indeed, when we arrived, an inventory was done of all the food left here over previous winters. No one goes starving - but the fare can get rather boring after a while.

Initially, when I got sick, I avoided the mess tent during meals because the smell of food made me queasy. Later, I avoided the tent during meals since I was now reminded of the cooking I could not eat. This was not a choice I made lightly - I had three instances where I got sick only after eating prepared food in the mess tent. I spent a lot of money to be here and had a lot of work to do. I was not going to allow digestion problems to deter me from that so, I coped with reality and I went with food plan B. If soldiers and astronauts can eat things that come in a bag, then so can I.

Of course HMP, as with any other field camp, or space mission, uses meal time as a point of interaction and socialization. We scheduled two major meetings every day - one after breakfast - to review the day ahead - and one after dinner to review the day past. Since I would be 10 meters away in the Science Tent I could hear the call for "meeting" which was shouted for anyone who had wandered off from dinner early. I participated in these meetings just like everyone else.

But I was missing the interaction that was so key to how such an operation runs. Even a casual reading of material describing human an operation factors associated with submarine, infantry, or Antarctic living conditions speaks to the importance of having good chow - and lots of it.

Good food is something that NASA has long known. Good food - or at least the best one can provide under the circumstances that accompany spaceflight - is very important to mission success. Astronauts are allowed to chose menus for their missions - and NASA has a whole kitchen system set up whereby meals are taste tested. Other popular items such as candies, condiments, and fresh vegetales are also added.

At a press workshop at NASA JSC in March 2003 we all had a chance to have lunch - astronaut style. The food we ate had actually flown on previous missions and was set aside for training - and feeding reporters. The food was rather good and I can imagine not having any problems eating it for long periods of time. Alas, the 'extra hot' sauce we were provided was not 'extra hot'. It was rather timid as I recall.

Again, all of my daily interactions, be they with my tent mates in the Science Tent, with the greenhouse team, traverse companions, or anyone else, were quite normal. It was meal time that I now missed. But my rational mind told me I was going to get sick for a fourth time if I ate cooked meals. And sitting in the tent while everyone else around me ate was irritating. So, I chose to simply avoid that irritation. In a large group such as ours this was not a big issue, but if this was a small team on the surface of Mars, it would be. You can't have one person isolating themselves from the rest of the crew.

Last year I had a short bout with dysentery as well - as do most folks at one point or another and was over things. I do not know what the cause is. Studies done of isolated research teams on Earth and in space have shown that participants experience depressed immune function. Maybe that is it. It is not the water since the coffee, Tang, soups. etc I eat have it and I feel fine.

All I can imagine is that it is something I am particularly sensitive to that enters into the food preparation process. To be certain, folks wash their hands etc. when preparing meals. But we are in the middle of no where, dust blows in. Who knows. There may be a soil microbe carried in the dust that blows about which happens to land in things and makes me sick. Over the past week though several people have told me they have had bouts as well. Given that the majority of folks seem to be unaffected, I have to assume that it has to do with individual sensitivity to something.

I don't see this as a big deal at HMP. But as I mentioned above, this experience has driven home some very important observations for things that need to be attended to on any mission to Mars. Such emergent observations, while not scripted or anticipated, are one of the things that research in a set-up such as the HMP can provide.

When astronauts reach orbit they stand a 50/50 chance that they will soon suffer from "Space Adaptation Syndrome". While the exact cause is still not pinned down (fluid shifts and vestibular changes are the prime suspects), the symptoms are well known: nausea and vomiting within hours of reaching orbit. The symptoms can appear with little or no warning - and one's experience on previous space missions is not necessarily a predictor of what will happen the next time that person travels into space.

The symptoms clear up after several days - and do not reoccur. Yet, during the time that crew members are sick they have a reduced work capacity. This is a fact of human spaceflight - and mission plans are adjusted accordingly so as to have some flexibilty as to who does what - and when.

Here are the procedures that ISS crew follow when dealing with issues similar to the inner turmoils I experienced on Devon Island:

  • Motion sickness [Acrobat]
  • Upset stomach [Acrobat]
  • Urinary retention [Acrobat]
  • Urinalysis [Acrobat]
  • Diarrhea [Acrobat]
  • Constipation [Acrobat]
  • Nausea and vomiting [Acrobat]

    Note: When I arrived home I discovered that I had lost 11 pounds in the three weeks that I was away. Last year I was away for a week longer and lost only 6 pounds. I would not recommend my peculiar arctic diet to folks - but it sure did shave some pounds off!


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