The Many Ways You Can Pretend to Be an Astronaut

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We can't all be Buzz Aldrin, but nothing can keep you from being an astronaut in the solar system of your mind!

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Is one mustache representative too much to ask from our space program?

NASA needs a few good volunteers to hole up in Hawaii for 180 days and try out the food that prospective travelers to Mars might eat.

It may sound crazy, but it's one of many "analog" experiments that NASA and our Russian counterparts run to get a handle on the impacts of space travel. Before we go zipping off across the solar system, we need to know how our bodies and minds might fare under the stresses of strange food and zero-gravity.

Luckily, there is no shortage of people willing to pretend to be astronauts for a little while, subjecting themselves to experiments that come with real physical risks and that make equally real contributions to off-world science. And there are even more people who want to help NASA out in other ways, too. Here's a list of the many ways you can pretend to be an astronaut without ever actually heading into space.

Option 1: Lay in Bed for Months at a Time to Simulate Microgravity

I first ran across analog studies reporting a story for Wired Science in which participants were paid $5,000 a month to lie in bed with for 90 days. To simulate the effects of microgravity on muscles and bones, NASA scientists have discovered they can tilt people slightly head down and keep them that way for a few months. People can do whatever they'd like as long as they retain that posture, but that doesn't make it easy.

"When they first put me head down that first day -- part of it is mental -- I had a little bit of a moment right before they put the head at minus six degrees. I thought, 'Oh my god, my feet aren't going to touch the floor for 90 days,'" one participant told me. "But I had committed to it. Once I was head down, what's immediate is the blood rush. All the blood rushes up to your face and you get a little headachey, nauseous."

If you'd like to participate in said studies, they are actively recruiting for two right now.

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Hard at work for space science. (Note: this is a lunar analog study, so the subject's body is actually in a different configuration than that used to study microgravity.)

Option 2: Cook and eat food designed for trips to Mars in a simulated Martian environment.

Turns out that planetary missions would encounter an unexpected problem: cooking. For short space missions, dehydrated food is fine, but researchers at Cornell and the University of Hawaii are raising serious questions about whether that strategy would work for Martian missions. For one, dehydrated food doesn't usually have the three to five year shelf life that such a mission would need. And can you imagine eating that stuff for years? So, they are running an experiment to see if cooking on Mars makes more sense than sending astronauts with a bunch of food packets.

On a planetary surface mission, the presence of gravity makes cooking possible. Properly packaged food ingredients typically last longer and require less packaging mass than individual rehydratable meals. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence indicates that menu fatigue may be less significant when food is cooked fresh on site rather than simply rehydrated. With the right ingredient set and some skill and creativity in the kitchen, an almost infinite variety of foods can be produced, providing planetary explorers with a nutritionally balanced diet customized to their evolving needs and likes. Moreover, preparation of food is an important part of every human culture, with psychological value for both the crew and the cook.

They'll be rigging people up in spacesuits and sticking them in a mocked-up Mars analog environment with only delayed electronic communication to the outside world. They'll be piloting the experiment with a two-week version this year and then extending that to 120 days in 2013.  

Option 3: Hang Out in a Mock Martian Craft at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Biomedical Problems for 520 Days

This one was a bit of a commitment, we must admit. But beginning in June 2010 and ending in November 2011, six people spent 520 days together in a simulated Martian environment. The citizens of Russia, China, Italy, and France apparently came out of the endeavor in fine mental and physical health, which  one can only attribute to the development of Netflix streaming is surprising.

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Astronauts? More like asbronauts.

Option 4: Take on a Citizen Science Project for NASA

Popular love for NASA has made the agency a hotbed for citizen science projects in which thousands of cosmophiles do hard science for free. The menu of projects is always changing, but right now you can spot lunar impact craters and/or help improve Martian maps.

Option 5: Purchase a $5,000 Ride on a 'Vomit Comet'

If you have more spare cash than free time, perhaps you could direct some of it to the Zero G Corporation, which offers special flights that allow people to experience weightlessness because they fly in big parabolic arcs. NASA has had a similar research plane for quite some time -- popularly nicknamed the Vomit Comet -- but Zero G makes it easy for anyone to see what it feels like to be weightless. To be clear, these flights don't go to space, but they simulate the feeling of zero gravity.

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When I go to space, I'm going to play with bubbles, too.

Option 6: Dress Up in a Homemade Astronaut Suit

And if all else fails, and you do not end up in any of the official pretending sessions, you can always sew your own suit and walk around England. That's what David Wilson did for the video below, and it really seemed to work out for him.



Option 7: Spend an Hour Photoshopping Your Head onto an Astronaut's Body

See photo at the top of this post. The key is to play with the color balance (particularly in the shadows) to match the tone of the photograph of your head with the tone of NASA's old film stocks. Trust me: it works.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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