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Scores apply for Martian taste test

Astronauts may have more food options available to them by the time they go on trips to Mars, as shown in this artist's conception, and NASA wants to be ready when the time comes.

Want to get paid $5,500, plus expenses, for tasting different kinds of space food on Hawaii's Big Island for four months? Join the crowd: About 100 people have applied for the job so far, and there are still six days to go before the deadline.

There are a few catches, though: You'd have to be cooped up in a fake Mars habitat for most of that time, cut off from the rest of the world except for a time-delayed communication link. Forget about packing the bikini. Anytime you leave the habitat, you'd have to wear a bulky spacesuit. And don't expect a luau. The whole point of this exercise is to find out whether it's better to feed you freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, or let you make your own meals from "shelf-stable" ingredients such as flour, beans, rice and cheese. For 120 days, you'll have to write detailed assessments of all those meals ... as well as your own mood.

Such is the life awaiting six prime crew members and two alternates next year during a 120-day simulated Mars mission known as Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation, or HI-SEAS.

University of Hawaii researcher Kim Binsted says the applications have been streaming in as the Feb. 29 deadline approaches. She can tell where HI-SEAS has gotten a shot of publicity by keeping track of where the emails are coming from on any particular day. "Apparently Italy heard about us yesterday," she said. By next week, she expects to have 200 or so applications to choose from.

The selection criteria are relatively stringent: a bachelor's degree in science, math or engineering ... three years of graduate school or professional experience ... ability to pass a flight physical exam ... 24 months of being tobacco-free. Plus, of course, a normal sense of taste and smell. "We're looking for people who would be as astronaut-like as possible," Binsted told me.

The simulation, conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is designed to find out which kinds of foods would make the most sense for a months-long mission beyond Earth orbit. Are meals be more satisfying if they're made from bulk ingredients, or will it turn out that the usual pre-packaged, no-muss meals are actually more suited to space missions?

Douglas C. Pizac / AP file

Gus Frederick, right, examines his camera as Greg Drayer looks on during a mission near the Mars Desert Research Station, northwest of Hanksville, Utah. The Hawaii mission simulation is likely to use a similar type of mock spacesuit.

After selection and training, the crew members will travel to Hawaii in early 2013 and get settled inside a simulated habitat that will probably be set up in the Big Island's Saddle Road area. Binsted said "it's very stark, very Marslike," with fresh lava flows from the Mauna Loa volcano. In addition to their food-tasting duties, the crew members should have some spare time to conduct other research studies, as long as they stay in character for the simulation.

Binsted said the entire three-year project is supported by a $947,000 NASA grant, and about a third of that will go toward the 120-day taste test. The project also includes a head-down, bed-rest study that's being conducted at the NASA Flight Analogs Research Center in Galveston, Texas, to simulate the effects of long-term microgravity.

Many astronauts have observed that food seems to lose its flavor in space — which is why hot sauce is such a popular condiment for crews on the International Space Station. Binsted said the bed-rest study could determine whether the hot-sauce effect arises because of a physical effect (for example, swelling of the nasal passages in zero-G) or a psychological effect.

"There's not a lot of 'spice' in their life, so maybe they have to get it from their food," she said.

More about space food and simulations:

To learn more about Hi-SEAS and apply to join the crew, check out the project's call for participants. Application deadline is 11:59 p.m. Hawaii time on Feb. 29. You can also follow @HI-SEAS on Twitter.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or following the Cosmic Log Google+ page. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.