Six scientists — some of them accomplished chefs — emerged from four months in a simulated space habitat where their mission was … to eat.

The purpose of the study, conducted on an isolated lava field about 8,000 feet above sea level on the northern slope of Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island, was to determine how best to feed astronauts during the long trip to Mars. The mission, known as Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation (or HI-SEAS for short), was led by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa and funded by NASA. It began in mid-April and wrapped up August 13.

Chicken and spinach enchilada soup "astronaut special"; Credit: Sian Proctor/HI-SEAS

Chicken and spinach enchilada soup “astronaut special”; Credit: Sian Proctor/HI-SEAS

The participants lived in a small dome and had to wear space suits the whole time.

During the mission, Commander Angelo Vermeulen and his colleagues ate a variety of instant foods and also cooked for themselves using shelf-stable ingredients. They rated all of their meals and kept detailed records of their moods, body mass and health status (most of them lost weight).

The ingredients they had to work with included tahini, canned eel, bacon, quinoa, popping corn, cashews, egg white crystals and truffle oil. For the real meals and recipes, click here.

Some favorites emerged from the scientists' time in “captivity”: Nutella and Spam. And there were some big losers as well: the dreaded Kung Fu Chicken.

Some of the pre-prepared favorites, Cmdr. Vermeulen told Astrobiology Magazine, were creamy wild rice soup, mashed potatoes, Tasty Bites with instant rice, raspberry crumble, apple sauce, and crackers. Wraps worked really well: “we combine tortillas, different vegetables, Velveeta cheese, and sausage or canned fish into ever-changing combinations.”

Freeze-dried meat was a bust: “too bland and hardly has any aroma.” The least favorite pre-prepared meal “must be 'Kung Fu Chicken,'” Vermeulen said. “This gets tiring really fast. Notwithstanding several ingredients, it has a rather flat taste, and the texture of the meal could be best described as 'slimy.'”

Vermeulen found that his crew hardly drank any sugared drinks once they made their way through the Tang, imbibing water, tea and coffee.

Ingredients that the crew deemed “essential” for future missions to Mars or the Moon include spices, herbs and hot sauce as well as Nutella, peanut butter and margarine.

“And then enough ingredients rich in fiber,” such as “wheat bread, rye crackers, nuts, and dried fruits.” Nutella was “something we craved,” Vermeulen said. “We had a limited supply so we had to ration it.”

Spam was a common ingredient because of its shelf life. The researchers whipped up several Spam dishes, including Cajun jambalaya and a fried rice dish.

The key is not so much the ingredients as having some talented cooks in the mix, Vermeulen said. “It's essentially some of the pre-prepared food that we quickly got tired of. That Kung Fu Chicken always comes back to mind.”

NASA officials have said that putting boots on Mars is the chief goal of the agency's human spaceflight program. NASA is working to get astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s, as directed by President Obama in 2010. (For a cool slideshow of what current astronauts eat — think M&Ms and sushi — click here.)

We can't wait for that first selfie of an astronaut with a can of Spam on the Red Planet.

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