On Thanksgiving, if you want to eat like an astronaut, look to "The Astronaut's Cookbook ? Tales, Recipes and More," where NASA veterans Charles Bourland and Gregory Vogt give a new behind-the-scenes look at dining in outer space.
"A good meal is essential in space ? the astronauts have to be at maximum performance if they're going to do their job," Bourland explained. "It might even be life-saving."
The cost of food
Since even now it costs some $10,000 per pound or more to launch something into space, NASA is eager to cut down on the weight of payloads, which influences food. In the Gemini capsule, each astronaut was allowed 1.7 lbs. of food per day, and even today's space shuttle crews are only allowed 3.8 lbs. of food per person daily. Food must also last without refrigeration, as fridges take up valuable space. Menus for astronauts are still picked out some five months in advance, much like they have been since the Gemini days.
Most food items are 90 percent water. As water is plentiful on the space shuttle as it was in the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft ? a byproduct of the fuel cells that provide them all their power ? freeze-dried meals were common, entrees that astronauts rehydrated by adding water into food pouches. However, "astronauts get tired of it pretty quick after a few days," Bourland said.
On the other hand, power on the space station is provided by huge solar panels, where water is not a byproduct. As a result, thermostabilized food, which is more popular with astronauts, is becoming more common there ? a fancy way of saying items that are heat-processed to destroy dangerous microbes, just like canned food on earth.
"I usually say we went from cubes and tubes to normal food that you eat from an open container," said Bourland, a food scientist who worked with NASA since Apollo 12.
Other types of space food include irradiated meals sterilized with ionizing radiation, dried fruits and beef, and snacks such as candy and nuts. Astronauts now even get a limited supply of fresh fruits and vegetables that must be eaten within the first few days of flight before they spoil.
"It's important to have a good meal in space whenever you can when you're that far away from home," Vogt said.
Celebrities Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray contributed recipes to NASA that are featured in "The Astronaut's Cookbook," including Lagasse's Kicked Up Bacon Cheese Mashed Potatoes. Recipes from astronauts are provided as well.
The real issue ? bathrooms
For years, NASA food scientists thought astronauts didn't eat space food because quality was the problem. "That was the issue to some extent, but on Apollo and even Gemini, the real problem was having to go to the bathroom afterward," Bourland explained.
"Imagine if you're sitting tight next to your buddy in a capsule, and you're going to the bathroom while he's trying to eat breakfast, and the odor then lingers in there for hours afterward. A lot of astronauts said they would rather not eat to avoid going to the bathroom," Bourland said. "Installing toilets in space actually solved a lot of nutrition problems."
Still, even now astronauts eat roughly half as much as they should when in the space shuttle. "When they're on the shuttle, they're always rushed for time, they've got all these things they need to do," Bourland said. "And quite a bit of people have motion sickness. Once they're on the station though, they usually get back to a normal routine."
Flavor in microgravity
One long-term concern with eating in space is how microgravity might impact taste.
"Vapors don't really rise from the food in space ? you wouldn't be able to smell it as well," Bourland explained. "And in microgravity, bodily fluids tend to accumulate in the upper body, resulting in congestion, which can also affect how food tastes."
Some astronauts say there is a change, some don't. "NASA did at least three experiments to test this, but there wasn't enough data to say either way," Bourland said. "We usually try and keep most of the food fairly mild in any case."
Pitfalls for space chefs
If you want to cook in outer space, here are hazards to avoid:
- Carbonated beverages are a no-no. The bubbles inside aren't buoyant in a weightless environment, so they randomly spread throughout fluid, even after swallowing. This means burps in space often unpleasantly come with a liquid spray, and "bubbles can go right through the other way as well, really causing problems for astronauts," Bourland said.
- Since powders can interfere dangerously with equipment, salt comes in a watery solution, while pepper comes in oil. Picante sauce and ketchup are available as well.
- Crumbs are problems too. In the early days of the space program, cookies were covered in gelatin to minimize crumbs ? "that's what happens when you have food designed by engineers," Vogt said. Nowadays they just use bite-size cookies that astronauts swallow whole, reducing the chance of errant fragments. Also, instead of bread, in 1985 astronaut Mary Cleave and payload specialist Rodolfo Vela introduced tortillas, as they have very few crumbs. "Tortillas are also popular playthings ? the astronauts toss them like Frisbees," Vogt said.
- Fresh oranges and bananas are unpopular. "They produce a smell that lingers," Bourland explained. "And when astronauts get into orbit, they may get nauseated, and then they associate the smell of the fruit with their nausea."
- Freeze-dried shrimp cocktail is surprisingly popular. "It looks pretty awful, but put water in there, and I've tried it, it's amazing," Vogt said.
Tofu on the menu?
As to what the astronauts at the space station will actually have for Thanksgiving in space? They ordered nothing special for the holiday, although they have irradiated smoked turkey and freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini on their menus if they really want the bird.
"We're just always pleased to be in space ? I don't care what they give us," current space shuttle STS-129 mission commander Charlie Hobaugh said. "It could be beef brisket. It could be tofu. It doesn't matter to me. We're going to enjoy ourselves no matter what we do."
"The tofu is a bit of a stretch," Hobaugh admitted when his crewmates laughed at the suggestion during a preflight news conference.
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