Being an astronaut is no picnic. Space missions can entail dehydration, constipation, calcium and potassium loss, electrolyte imbalances, and motion sickness, to name a few common symptoms of space travel. On top of all that, the cuisine is less than stellar.
Now space food engineers are trying to make the galactic experience a bit more enjoyable by expanding the menu to allow astronauts to tailor meals to their taste. “We can’t get a grocery store up there so they can shop, but now astronauts can wake up in the morning and want this or that for breakfast and they can have it,” said Charles Bourland, a former NASA food engineer who is the lead author of a recently published book: The Astronaut’s Cookbook: Tales, Recipes, and More.
Bourland and co-author Gregory Vogt were the featured attraction at an October 27 lecture-cum-food-tasting at the American Museum of Natural History, part of the museum’s “Global Kitchen” series. Adventurous attendees took a journey through the evolution of astronaut food, sampling the staples of modern space cuisine at the end of the talk.
Bourlandbegan the story when space food was just a twinkle in NASA’s eye: “When we first started talking about food at NASA, some people thought you wouldn’t be able to eat in space because you couldn’t swallow,” he said. “Apparently they had never seen college students drink beer standing on their heads.”
The first astronaut to eat in space was Russian Gherman Titov in 1961, although the contents of his meal remain classified information to this day. The Americans broke into the space dining scene the following year when John Glenn, Jr., slurped down some apple sauce. It was soon apparent that space food needed to evolve beyond tube feeding and saliva-hydrating freeze-dried fare.
“Most of the food that went up in the early days came right back down to Earth [uneaten], which says something,” Bourland said. He added, however, that this was less a failing of the food than of the bathroom situation. “Imagine sitting in a tiny space the size of a Volkswagen with two other people,” he said. “If you have to go to the bathroom you have to do it right there with no privacy, and the odors linger.” Luckily, that situation was soon amended with the installation of a small closet-like bathroom equipped with an air-flushing toilet replacing the original hand-held plastic bag.
Mishaps were encountered along the way. A life-threatening Tang leak in moonwalking astronaut Charlie Duke’s suit did away with the concept of built-in space suit juice bars in 1971. Pesky crumbs “flying all over the place” in microgravity posed respiratory problems to astronauts, leading to the universal adoption of soft-shelled tortillas instead of bread in the 1980s. Cooking in space, however, remains an art that has yet to be mastered. “If you burned a steak, you couldn’t open the window and let the smoke out,” Bourland said.
There have been many other advances in technique and menu, though. A self-heating food tray finally allows for a warm meal, and “bonus food” – including snacks and regional specialties—such as M&Ms and jambalaya—provide an extra treat on long missions. Also, the Tang now comes loaded with vitamins to supplement potassium loss characteristic of space life as microgravity leads to a lack of weight exerted on bones, resulting in bone deterioration over time. (Note: Vogt pointed out that Tang was not invented by NASA, but rather “was kind of a product that was looking for a home.”)
Attendees were rewarded at the end of the talk with sweet and sour chicken, lemon bars, and mango smoothies, all items currently featured on the menu in space. Although in looks and taste it resembled Earth food, all of the items had undergone irradiation, or a dose of blasting with short wavelengths of ionizing radiation to purge decay-inducing microorganisms. The lack of bacteria did not stop audience members from lining up for second helpings.
Despite the food varieties now available in space, however, the authors report no known cases of astronauts craving space food after their return to Earth. Instead, according to Bourland, they generally demand pizza, beer, or a glass of milk.