Astronauts eating in space has come a long way in 50 years, but one ingredient they seem to crave—hot sauce!
No matter what NASA foodie technicians do to make space food taste good, our outer space taste buds seem to make everything a bland palette. The reason is the shift in body fluids in weightlessness and competition for smells surrounding an astronaut in the cramped spaceship. So, at every meal around the dinner table at the International Space Station the big question is…who has the Tabasco Sauce?
It is such a desired ingredient in nearly everything they eat that former Space Shuttle pilot and commander Eileen Collins personally told me that one of the most smuggled items to the ISS are packets of Taco Bell hot sauce. When a cargo ship like SpaceX’s Dragon or Orbital ATK’s Cygnus rocket off to the ISS, you better believe there is plenty of soy, barbecue and hot sauce on board!
Food has truly come a long way in the 50 years of manned space exploration. In the 1960s, we didn’t know for sure if humans could swallow food, drink water, process it in their stomach and intestines and then eliminate the waste.
Those questions were answered by NASA’s one-man Mercury space program. Our first orbiting astronaut John Glenn drank a popular orange powder, Tang, and then ate a tube of apple sauce with no ill effects. Later the day-long mission of Mercury 9 and Gordon Cooper saw him eat, sleep and go to the bathroom in space.
A famous gastronomy space story involves the first two-man Gemini 3 space shot, when astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich in his space suit pocket, made at Wolfies, a restaurant frequented by astronauts. Once in orbit, he offered a bite to his startled commander, Gus Grissom, who told him to put it away so bread crumbs didn’t get into computer consoles. Young was gently reprimanded for his unauthorized snack.
Today on the ISS (and Space Shuttle mission before) bread is still forbidden, but a peanut butter and jelly on a flour tortilla is a popular sandwich. Everything can be rolled in a corn or flour tortilla, and they keep preserved well in the space environment.
Space food started with tubes of pate-like veggies and meats and has evolved to complete dinners like you’d buy in the grocery isle. Like military rations, called MRE’s, these meals can be heated in a microwave oven onboard the ISS. However, there isn’t a refrigerator onboard—they take too much power—so yogurt and ice cream aren’t available. And no, astronauts don’t really eat that dehydrated ice cream that is so popular in science gift shops.
There is a common dinner table in the ISS for a psychological boost of home life. But the food packets, forks, spoons and knifes are held in the weightless environment with Velcro, magnets and even springs.
One of the favorite meals of space travelers has been shrimp cocktail. And one they genuinely miss is cold milk on cereal—your corn flakes or sugar smacks are crunched dry.
Today, fruits and vegetables that can be safely stored at room temperature are eaten on space flights. Astronauts also have a greater variety of main courses to choose from, and many request personalized menus from lists of available foods including items like fruit salad and spaghetti. Astronauts sometimes request beef jerky for flights.
Space nutritionists ensure the food astronauts eat provides them with a balanced supply of vitamins and minerals for the special needs of space exploration, like loss of calcium. An astronaut can choose from many types of foods such as fruits, nuts, peanut butter, chicken, beef, seafood, candy, brownies, etc. Available drinks include freeze dried coffee and tea, orange juice, fruit punches and lemonade.
A cola war was waged in 1985 on the Space Shuttle between Pepsi and Coke. It was found that carbonated drinks in space are not favored due to changes in belching caused by microgravity; without gravity to separate the liquid and gas in the stomach, burping results in a kind of vomiting called “wet burping.”
Pioneers of eating in space are the Russian cosmonauts aboard their series of space stations called Salyut and Mir. And, boy, do they eat hearty! A typical days’ meals for Russian cosmonauts:
Breakfast: curds and nuts, mashed potatoes with nuts, apple-quince chip sticks, sugarless coffee and vitamins.
Lunch: jellied pike perch, borsch with meat, goulash with buckwheat, bread, black currant juice, sugarless tea.
Supper: rice and meat, broccoli and cheese, nuts, tea with sugar.
Night time snack: dried beef, cashew nuts, peaches, grape juice.
Some of the best space videos are those of astronauts eating their meals…playing with their food, which Mom scolded all of us for doing! Pudding will stick to spoons twirled around and peas can be tossed across the spacecraft and chased down like a dog retrieving a stick.
Most interesting are how liquids react in space. All liquids ball up into liquid bubbles, fun to stick a straw into and suck down into your tummy.
And candy is a big hit in space. Hershey’s chocolate bars are welcome as well as some fun, floating morsels of M&Ms, Skittles and Reese’s pieces. But no Moon Pies, please, the crumbs might end up where you least expect them.