Mars food study researchers to emerge from dome

HONOLULU — Six researchers have spent the past four months living in a small dome on a barren Hawaii lava field at 8,000 feet, trying to figure out what foods astronauts might eat on Mars and during deep-space missions.

They were set to emerge Tuesday with their recipes and without the space suits they were required to wear each time they ventured onto the northern slope of Mauna Loa — an active volcano that last erupted in 1984.

“It will be the first time (in four months) they feel fresh air on their faces,” said Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii-Manoa associate professor and an investigator on the NASA-funded study who didn’t live in the habitat.

The six researchers were selected by the University of Hawaii and Cornell University to prepare meals from a list of dehydrated, preserved foods that are not perishable. They examined pre-prepared meals similar to what astronauts currently eat, and concocted meals themselves in an attempt to combat malnourishment and food boredom.

The team included a space research scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey in Arizona; a science and technology journalist from San Francisco; and a materials scientist and educator who works with disadvantaged students in Puerto Rico.

Members did their cooking in a two-story dome with small sleeping quarters, an exercise room and of course, a kitchen.

Team commander Angelo Vermeulen said on the study’s website that the problem with ingredients that aren’t perishable is they’re usually highly processed and lack fiber.

The study, dubbed Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, included an open call for recipes that involved a lot of Spam. The canned meat, popular in Hawaii households, was a common ingredient in suggested recipes because of its shelf-life, Binsted said.

The researchers prepared several dishes using Spam, including a Cajun jambalaya and a fried rice noodle dish. They had to rely on freeze-dried produce and meat that Binsted said were close to fresh.

She said Hawaii’s temperate weather and Mauna Loa’s geological features were a perfect setting for the study. The area is isolated, yet accessible, and has no visible plant or animal life.

“It looks like Mars,” she said.

Team members will spend several days in debriefings after they emerge from the dome. They’ll likely be disoriented from the experience, Binsted said, and they have requested a beach outing before returning to their regular lives.

It will take several months to process all the data gathered. Binsted hopes to present findings at the International Astronautical Congress later this year in Beijing.

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