Astronauts Wanted: Experiment in Hawaii to Test Mars Menus

Volunteers sought for experiment in Hawaii to test food menus for Mars flights.

Feb. 21, 2012 — -- Wanted: Astronauts ... sort of. Six volunteers and two backups needed for simulated stay on Mars. Must be willing to endure four months of bad food.

Researchers from Cornell and the University of Hawaii have not posted a want ad precisely like that, but they are looking for able-bodied volunteers willing to be cooped up for 120 days and nights in a make-believe Mars base early in 2013. The experiment is called HI-SEAS -- short for Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue & Simulation -- and would have the would-be astronauts live in a habitat amid the volcanic rubble on Hawaii's Big Island. (If they want to visit the beach, the volunteers can go on their own time once their simulated Mars stay is finished.)

The objective? The researchers are seriously interested in studying the volunteers to find out out what real astronauts might eat, and whether they would cook and consume enough to sustain themselves on a long mission when pulling over at the nearest convenience store would not be an option.

"Anyone eating a restricted diet will soon get tired of it," said Jean Hunter, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University and an organizer of the experiment. "Astronauts on long missions generally don't eat enough. That's good for a diet on Earth, but bad in space, because all the problems of microgravity, like bone and muscle loss, are exacerbated if you don't get enough calories."

The researchers would make the experiment fairly realistic -- the crew members would have limited communications with mission control, and wear makeshift spacesuits whenever they went outside. Inside, they would be limited to the food supplies that had been packed in their habitat -- long-lasting staples such as flour, sugar, beans, rice, olive oil, dehydrated meat and cheese.

Could you stomach it? Or would the lack of variety drive you crazy? Would your sense of taste or smell be diminished? NASA would like to know, which is why, even though it has no specific plans for a Mars expedition on the books, it is funding preliminary research now.

Historically, astronauts on short flights -- space shuttle missions or the Apollo flights to the moon -- said they were willing to put up with almost anything for the chance to fly. In 2009, ABC News followed a shuttle crew for a year leading up to a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and while they joked about pizza and peanut butter, they willingly took what NASA gave them.

"The first thing to know about space food," said astronaut John Grunsfeld, smiling, "is that it's the ambience, it's the environment, it is not the food."

But Grunsfeld and his team were on a two-week flight. A Mars mission might take two or three years. Early space station missions showed that space fliers sometimes showed signs of depression, and little things, such as the lack of fresh fruit, became major psychological issues.

"If you're shut up for a long mission, food literally becomes the spice of life," said Hunter. "It becomes a lot more important than it does on Earth."

Applications for HI-SEAS will be accepted until Feb. 29. Candidates must be nonsmokers in good health, between the ages of 21 and 65, with bachelor's degrees in engineering, math or appropriate sciences. Special consideration will be given to those who could use the four months for related experiments in geology or long-duration spaceflight.

"This could make a difference for Mars missions, or it could be helpful to future astronauts at lunar outposts, who might spend most of their careers there," said Hunter.

She laughed a little. "You could cite the old joke about the first restaurant on the moon: Great food, no atmosphere."