Global Edmonton (Canada) - by Erika Tucker
The University of Hawaii and Cornell University are looking for six people to participate in a Mars exploration simulation mission that involves tasting food.
The NASA-funded project is accepting applications from all over the world, including Canada, and the February 29 deadline is quickly approaching.
Dozens of submissions have already been received, and will be reviewed by project investigators as well as at least one NASA or Canadian Space Agency representative. Up to 30 semi-finalists will be selected.
Here are some of the requirements listed in their call for participants:
- willingness and ability to eat a wide range of foods
- normal sense of taste and smell
- smoke-free for at least two years
- bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological/physical sciences, mathematics or computer sciences
But don’t lose hope if you lack the math and science background. Principal investigator and study team head Jean Hunter says exceptions may be made.
“If we have some really great applications from say, writers or artists, we may accept somebody with that background into the study,” says Hunger. After all, she notes that the National Science Foundation (NSF) accepts artists and writers to their Antarctic program.
Goals of the study
The study will compare crew-cooked versus pre-prepared foods in the context of a four-month Mars analogue mission. Analogue means simulation, and involves building a habitat that replicates the conditions of a mission on the surface of a planet.
The project will look at how the current NASA diet of pre-prepared foods compares to the crew cooking their own meals. Currently, astronauts often experience “menu fatigue” from eating their restricted diet of pre-packaged meals over long periods of time.
This can cause reduced food intake, which can increase risks for bone loss, muscle weakening and cardiovascular de-conditioning. Hunter explains body changes that occur in weightlessness-and potentially in low gravity-will occur faster if the astronauts aren’t eating enough.
The cooking in this study will be done with shelf staple ingredients such as flour, sugar, beans, dried fruit, nuts; anything that can be kept in the pantry.
The study will also investigate the role of food in an isolated environment, which involves a psychological component.
“When the four walls around you are the same, the people around you are the same, and you can’t really enjoy a walk outside…then food provides a great deal of the variety that you experience,” says Hunter. “Food provides a lot of the psychological support on isolated and confined missions, more than it does in everyday life.”
Things to think about before applying
Selected participants will get an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii and a total mission compensation of US$5,000 if completed. But it’s not exactly the beach landscape that the tropical destination often brings to mind.
“They’ll be out on lava fields which tend to be uneven and rocky,” says Hunter. “If they get injured or sick, we would of course go in and rescue them, but it’s quite a trek to the nearest hospital.”
Hunter emphasizes that though they will be isolated and confined, four months isn’t that long, particularly when compared with real-life missions.
“They will be able to go outside of the habitat in mock space suits, which will be something like a Hazmat suit,” says Hunter. “And they will have an Internet connection with a delay on it, so that they can communicate with people ‘back home’ as we might say.”
In addition, each crew member is required to propose a personal research project to conduct throughout the “mission” that is hoped to be rewarding in itself.
Hunter expects to attract people who have personal research interests in fields such as geology, biology, meteorology, or developing technology that could be used to help planetary explorations. Writers could propose to create fiction or non-fiction, and artists might plan to create a work of art.
“Meaningful work is a big component of the astronaut experience and one that we really want to replicate in our study,” says Hunter.
Study to start early 2013
Hunter believes this will be the only long-term isolated confined analogue study of the year 2013 (though she acknowledges the Chinese Space Agency doesn’t share their research with the rest of the world).
February 29 is the application deadline, followed by a workshop at Cornell University where finalists will be evaluated, taught to cook using shelf staple ingredients, and formed into a team.
There will be a two-week training session in the habitat used for the simulation to make sure everything is working. The four month study is slated to start early 2013.