NASA Seeks Volunteers for Astronaut Cooking Challenge

A space shuttle cake with jelly cat astronauts
A space shuttle cake with jelly cat astronauts

Are you unemployed? Hungry? Have you always wanted to be an astronaut? NASA may have just the job for you.

The space agency is seeking six volunteers to live on a simulated Mars base on a Hawaiian lava flow for four months to test meals that could be served on an eventual mission to Mars, Sci-Tech Today reports.

A potential Martian getaway would take about three years -- six months' travel each way, plus two years living on the Red Planet. Space scientists are trying to figure out the cheapest and easiest ways to feed astronauts on a Mars mission well-rounded, non-boring meals. Volunteers would eat a mix of prepared foods NASA astronauts already eat and some shelf-stable foods.

The study is part of a three-year project sponsored by NASA (your tax money!). Data from the simulation will be used to look at the economics of finding the easiest edible things to transport far into space, as well as "menu fatigue."

"It's important to keep astronauts eating well," Jean Hunter, Cornell professor of biological and environmental engineering, told Sci-Tech Today. "It goes to mission success and astronaut safety." (Cornell University and University of Hawaii-Manoa researchers are conducting the study.)

Volunteers will live essentially like astronauts, including wearing simulated spacesuits. That lifestyle also will include limited showering and delayed electronic communication with the outside world. They'll be given a supply of the prepared foods NASA astronauts eat today and foods such as flour, sugar and freeze-dried meat for making their own meals. (Jerky meatloaf? Freeze-dried ice cream sundaes? Tang martinis??) Alton Brown will provide commentary. (Just kidding.)

NASA currently has no plans for a Mars mission, but it would like to be prepared just in case. The site of the study hasn't been determined, though there are a number of locations in Hawaii that are "quite Mars-like in various ways," Kim Binstead, co-investigator at the University of Hawaii-NASA Astrobiology Institute, told Sci-Tech Today. The ideal spot will have virtually no vegetation, will be visually isolated and "very stark."

As far as who they're seeking as volunteers, Hunter says ideally they should be scientists or engineers and "people who are congenial or easygoing, without a whole lot of prickles -- people who are interested in food, who know how to cook. And people who are healthy." Chosen "crewmembers" will be paid a stipend of $25 per day spent in the faux Mars habitat plus a completion bonus at the end of the mission, for total compensation of $5,000 in addition to travel, lodging and food expenses.

The chosen "astronauts" will train at Cornell this summer to learn how to prepare meals with the given supplies. There will be a two-week dry run before the four-month experiment "to make sure everyone gets along and the equipment works," Hunter says.

The deadline to apply is Feb. 29 -- go to You must have a bachelor's degree in a science field, be able to pass a Class 2 flight physical exam and be willing to eat just about anything. You have to not be crazy or have a chronic medical condition, you can't have had a nose job (no history of upper-airway surgery, rhinoplasty, chronic rhinitis or chronic sinusitis), and you must have been tobacco-free for the last 24 months. It would be "desirable" if you weren't pregnant or lactating or overweight, if you could lift 15 kg, if you had experience in a complex operational system (e.g., submarine, ambulance, airplane cockpit, control room), and if you had some knowledge of construction and household cooking.

It would help if you were really bored and weird.

Choices will be made by the end of May. Then we can start voting people off Mars.

Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.


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