The Many Ways You Can Pretend to Be an Astronaut

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.  

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