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While missions to the moon or even International Space Station take a lot of meticulous planning, the one to Mars is going to require even more so, mainly due to the fact that it will be the longest one ever. Scientists estimate that it will take astronauts a total of at least 520 days or about 18 months to travel to Mars, perform a short mission and return to Earth.
This means that in addition to the technological challenges, experts also have to ensure that the humans brave enough to take this challenge are well-taken care of. In 2011, a mock mission was undertaken by some volunteer 'astronauts' to examine the psychological effects of being sequestered inside a tight capsule for 18 months.
Following the success of that mission, which was organized by the European Space Agency (ESA), USA based NASA recently funded another mock mission that entailed sequestering six brave researchers with varying backgrounds in similar conditions on a barren lava field in Hawaii. The goal of the four month long Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Mission (HI-SEAS), was to conduct food preparation studies for long-term space exploration.
It entailed testing two strategies for would be Mars astronauts - Eating pre-prepared freeze dried meals similar to what current astronauts do, or cooking actual meals like the way we do on earth, which would be possible once the astronauts get to the Red Planet given that it has some gravity. Experts believe that it is important to test out both strategies because the length of the mission could result in food fatigue, which may lead to astronauts not eating the amount of food necassary to keep them healthy.
To help out the budding 'astronaut' chefs, University of Cornell who conducted the study, held a 'Meals for Mars' contest asking the general public to submit recipes that were tasty, easy to prepare and most importantly, contained ingredients like Spam and freeze dried beef, which have a long shelf life.
In order to closely simulate the living conditions on the Red Planet, the 'astronauts' were required to stay in a two-story dome that housed cramped sleeping quarters, a small gym and most important of all, a kitchen. They were also required to wear space suits each time they ventured outside - Not an easy thing to walk around in, with gravity.
The culinary chefs emerged from their temporary home on Tuesday, August 13th to report on their mission. Happy to finally be rid of their space suits they did not elaborate much on which food strategy they favored most. They did however mention that they were pleasantly surprised at how good the freeze dried food tasted. But it could not have been as good as the meals they cooked, which included items like no crust quiche, lemon blueberry pancakes, Moroccan beef tagine, spam fried rice, campfire hash, crater crunch bars and dark matter cake - All from recipes sent in by imaginative contestants!
The one thing they did complain about was having only processed food that contained very little fiber, which is probably why they all rushed to the fruit and vegetable section of the buffet breakfast as soon as they completed the mission. The astronauts also craved comfort foods like Nutella. In fact they all enjoyed it so much, that they had to ration it carefully for fear of running out.
The astronauts are now spending a few days debriefing NASA experts about their experience, after which they hope to take a short, well-deserved vacation hopefully on a crowded Hawaiian beach, so that they can get used to being around people again before heading off to their respective homes. To read more about this fun cooking mission and even try out some of the recipes go to hi-seas.org.
So what's next for this highly anticipated mission to Mars? Another mock mission that will require six 'astronauts' to spend over a year sequestered in similar quarters starting June 2014 - Except this one will be in the freezing Canadian Arctic and hopefully even incorporate some of the delicious meals prepared by the chefs on this mission.