Thirty-five-year-old Yajaira Sierra Sastre has spent most of her life dreaming about being the first Puerto Rican woman in space. The aspiring astronaut has a PhD in nanotechnology from Cornell University, and says she is one step closer to her dream now that she’s been accepted into a NASA planetary project.
“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little girl,” Sierra Sastre said to EFE in a recent interview. “I told people at school that’s what I wanted, and since then I’ve kept every newspaper article I ever saw about astronauts and missions to outer space.”
One of the six people chosen to live in NASA’s planetary base, Sierra Sastre will spend four months living inside of an environment designed to simulate a future base on Mars.
“We’re six scientists who will live for four months isolated in a planetary module to simulate what life will be like for astronauts at a future base on Mars, while also taking part in a study on the importance of healthy meals in outer space,” Sierra Sastre said.
Research has shown astronauts in space don’t eat enough, presumably getting bored with the lack of variety in their food. That decrease in nutrition leads to weight loss and lethargy, two things that could be very dangerous in a base far from medical care on Earth.
While inside the base located in Hawaii, Sierra Sastre and her companions will live devoid of contact from the outside world, with the exception of emails. If they step outside of the facility, they will have to wear spacesuits.
The controlled environment is part of the food development program, Sierra Sastre explained, and designed to determine if senses of smell and taste change during periods of isolation, and the impact this has on astronauts’ mental and emotional state.
“They’re teaching us new cooking techniques,” said Sierra Sastre, “and we’re putting together a database of recipes that we’ll recommend to NASA for future missions to Mars – and I will personally make sure we’ll have Martian paella, which we will make with rehydrated seafood.”
Cooking would be possible on Mars, she explained, due to a minimal presence of gravity. To simulate the cooking environment, NASA is providing a pantry of non-perishable items for the group to experiment with. Among those, says Sierra Sastre, will be traditional Puerto Rican ingredients such as recaito pepper sauce, cilantro and annatto.
The program takes the Puerto Rico native one step closer to her goal of visiting outer space; she sent in her application to NASA during November of 2011 when the organization listed 15 open slots for astronaut training.