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A fresh taste of space

Space food has a come a long way since the days of mystery meals in a tube. But with travel to Mars and consumer flights on the horizon, cosmic cuisine still has a journey ahead of it.

The closest most earthlings come to eating in orbit is probably the cleverly packaged Astronaut Ice Cream, a freeze-dried variety which children usually try on a fieldtrip to a national air and space museum. But for actual astronauts, the novelty of the silver packaging doesn’t make up for the taste. “Kids like it, but it doesn’t really appeal to adults,” says William Jeffs of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. “It’s more like hard cotton candy than real ice cream.”

What astronauts do have a deep-space hankering for might come as a surprise. “Historically, the most favorite is the shrimp cocktail,” says Jeffs. “It has horseradish in the sauce, so it has a little kick.” Astronauts tend to prefer spicy dishes, but this isn’t necessarily due to their refined, adult palate. Since the dawn of manned space travel, astronauts have reported that being in zero gravity seems to dull their taste buds, which, according to Jeffs, has more to do with their sense of smell. There are many “competing odors” on space vessels, so astronauts can’t catch a good whiff of what they’re eating, much in the same way food tastes blander when someone is sick with a cold.    

Over the years, there have been some rather creative solutions to this space-age problem. During the Gemini flights in the 1960s, astronauts tried a variety of foods like chicken and vegetables, butterscotch pudding, and apple sauce, according to the NASA website. Gravity posed a particular problem, though, as liquids and crumbly foods could cause damage to electrical equipment or even float listlessly into an astronaut’s eye. Those onboard could mostly choose from an assortment of squeezable tubes or small packets - aside from one lone space ranger.

For the Gemini III flight, astronaut John Young tried a culinary experiment of his own: a corn beef sandwich he smuggled onboard in his space suit. Although Young was originally reprimanded, his contraband efforts led NASA to allow a “carry on” sandwich on later flights. “This was literally a sandwich that was carried on the vehicle, stored under the seats and was available for consuming upon reaching orbit before the galley was set up for food preparation,” says Jeffs.  

This little taste of home has found its way onto space shuttles in a variety of cultural manifestations. In recent years, a freeze-dried form of sushi has been on the menu of the International Space Station, and South Korean scientists conducted millions of dollars of research to create a space-safe version of Kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage, to help the first Korean astronaut feel at home onboard the ISS in 2008.

As far as space food has come, it still has a long way to go. The next great hurdle will be developing meals to last for a trip to Mars and back. “The first flight to Mars is expected to require shelf-stable foods with at least a five-year shelf life,” says Jeffs. “While there are some foods that will last that long, there is not a sufficient variety of foods with that kind of shelf life that are currently available that could assure a balanced diet for a trip to Mars.” NASA is currently taking part in joint research projects with military feeding systems to find advanced packaging materials which would provide a longer shelf life for more nutritious foods.

And for the non-cosmonauts in the crowd? After dedicating a Space Port in New Mexico this October, British billionaire Richard Branson is putting Virgin Galactic on course to offer the first consumer space flights over the next few years. But during a two-hour trip through the heavens, “food will be the last thing on your mind,” says Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director. However, nutrition will play a key role in readying flyers over a two-day period prior to launch. After the initial, two-hour flights are well established, Virgin Galactic is toying with the idea of incorporating food into future, longer-lasting orbital flights, but that would be years away at the earliest. Until then, Astronaut Ice Cream will have to suffice for stargazers here on the ground.  


By Editor Will Cade