Monday, June 22, 2015

A Short History of Space Food

From the online magazine Serious Eats comes an interesting short history about space food--the food astronauts eat while traveling in space capsules, on the International Space Station ("ISS"), and in other no-gravity locales.

The most informative part of the article is the part that addresses what makes foods appropriate for space.  Three qualities are important.  A suitable food should be stable at shirt-sleeve temperatures (there's no refrigeration on space missions); it should not generate crumbs (too difficult to contain and keep from entering and ruining delicate equipment); and it should be possible to package it in such a way that it can be  eaten without too much trouble.  So although those styrofoam-like bricks of ice cream aren't used in the space program nowadays (too crumbly), most space foods are vacuum-sealed into plastic pouches that must be opened with scissors before they can be eaten.

Variety isn't much of a problem, either; each astronaut gets to select a specified number of foods to be personally packed for him or her before each flight.  What's trickier is combining foods in space before actually eating them.  The video on the right, linked in the article, shows Chris Hadfield on the ISS, illustrating the challenges of assembling foods in space by making a peanut butter and honey tortilla sandwich.  (The real problem: keeping the tortilla from floating away while you open the peanut butter and honey in order to spread them on the tortilla.)  Here's another fun video, also involving Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, in which Hadfield makes and eats a burrito on the ISS. The taste is very different, but the same problems (keeping your bread from floating off while you open the condiments for spreading on it) still apply.

What made the article fascinating to me is how it highlights the role of technology in the preparation of food.  None of the foods eaten aboard the ISS are novel; what makes them different from what you and I eat, or can eat, is solely the packaging and formulation necessary to adapt them for use in a zero-gravity environment.  In my opinion, that fact makes space food more interesting, but less influential, than the expansion of food types and preparation techniques which have resulted from exploration and colonization on Earth. 

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