Called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation – HI-SEAS – the project was designed to analyze the difference between pre-packaged astronaut food and "home" cooking: is the expense and time-commitment of cooking in space worth the emotional benefit of meals that the astronauts make themselves? The results are expected to help NASA determine where to spend its money in planning a future expedition to Mars.
The project began in December 2012, when the University of Hawaii and Cornell University put out a call for participants who would give up a third of an Earth calendar year – and all the good summer eating expected to come with it – in the name of science. Candidates had to have science degrees but did not need to be chefs. They did, however, “need to at least be eager to eat,” said Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii at Manoa professor who was involved in overseeing the research.
In April, the crew was moved into their new 993-square-foot home on the black-brown slopes of Mauna Loa, an environment that would replicate the lack of sensory stimulation on Mars, where ecological nothingness might compound an astronauts’ craving for something interesting to eat.
“It’s a very barren mountain field,” said Dr. Binsted. “There’s no vegetation in sight.”
The experiment was organized to have the crew trade off between cooking and non-cooking days every two days. On non-cooking days, the crew ate pre-prepared meals. Some were good, others were not, said Binsted. All the while, the team recorded their assessments of the food, rating such factors as taste and texture.
And then, there were cooking days. For those, the team was provided with non-perishable, preserved, and dehydrated ingredients – the sort that could be ferried all the way to Mars without spoiling. In other words, the researchers were handed a lot of Spam, plus: freeze dried meats and fish; grains like rice and oatmeal; dried fruits and vegetables; lots of nuts and beans and chips; powdered dairy products; baking ingredients; and an impressive roster of spices and condiments.