NASA taste-tests Mars menu (tip: avoid the Kung-fu chicken)

A Canadian who participated in a NASA-funded project to test food that people might eat on Mars says it's changed his perspective on Spam. Simon Engler spoke to Day 6's Brent Brambury about some of the best and worst meals he ate during the project.

Spam-based recipes get thumbs up, but Kung-fu chicken was 'pretty awful'

Over the course of the mission, which was meant to simulate food preparation on Mars, participants ate a combination of pre-packaged instant foods and food they cooked themselves from packaged, shelf-stable ingredients such as Spam and dehydrated vegetables. (Sian Proctor/HI-SEAS)

A Canadian who spent four months living in a simulated Mars habitat as part of a NASA-funded project to test food that people might eat on Mars says it has changed his perspective on Spam.

"I don't have the same hang-ups as before," said Simon Engler in an interview with Day 6's Brent Bambury after emerging from the HI-SEAS project last week.

Cooked the right way, he said, the tinned meat product he once turned his nose up at "tastes really good."

Engler, a robotics engineer from Calgary who previously served with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, emerged Tuesday from his temporary home on the Mars-like lava fields of Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island, along with five other participants in the project.

The goal of the study by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii was to compare how future Mars travelers might fare on a diet of pre-packaged instant foods and food they cook themselves from bulk, shelf-stable ingredients such as dehydrated vegetables and Spam.

Engler said that's important, because the current astronaut diet of packaged food is only good for short missions — after longer periods of time, astronauts get tired of it and don't want to eat any more of the same food, which causes them to lose weight and has a negative impact on their performance.

He added that being able to cook, as people can't really do in space but will be able to on Mars, makes all the difference when it comes to livening up the menu.

"The amount of variety that you can have and the quality just goes up exponentially."

Engler said one of the worst foods he ate during the project was one of the pre-packaged instant meals, called Kung-fu chicken.

"It doesn't taste like anything remotely like a chicken, or anything else I know about in this real world," he recalled. "It was pretty awful and had the consistency of a syrup — it was supposed to be almost a stew. It was pretty difficult to get through those meals."

On the other hand, he said some of his crewmates made "immaculate, wonderful dishes," including traditional Russian dishes with hand-rolled noodles. He also enjoyed crepes and some Spam-based recipes submitted by the public as part of a recipe contest run by the project.

That said, he admitted that a lot of the crew members were craving fresh fruit by the end of the mission.