Just How Nasty Is Space Food?

An intrepid food expert plays astronaut to find out.

By Bill Daley|Friday, February 01, 2008
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT

I’ve whipped up meals in fancy copper saucepans, in battered woks, and in my grandfather’s old iron skillet, but never before have I used a syringe to make dinner. There I was, feeling like a cross between a superstar chef and a crack addict, madly jabbing a needle into a scrunched-up pouch of freeze-dried NASA shrimp cocktail, injecting a bit of water, and watching the water dribble uselessly back out. Welcome to space—the final food frontier.

Since the days of Project Mercury’s squeeze tubes, the food scientists at Johnson Space Center have come back to Earth a bit. Astronauts flying the space shuttle or working the International Space Station (ISS) can choose among 180 food and beverage items. Their menus are routinely reviewed by nutritionists—but rarely by food critics. That’s where I come in, to investigate an oft-overlooked but essential aspect of life in space.

With a dozen rations to reconstitute before me, I wished the good folks at NASA believed in packaging instructions as fervently as they do good nutrition. Astronauts cook by fitting a packet of freeze-dried food onto a needle-tipped rehydration station, or heating a thermostabilized food pouch in a briefcase-shaped electric warmer. A pair of scissors—in space, more useful than a fork and spoon—opens the pouch, and a Velcro disk on the bottom anchors it to the meal tray. Lacking NASA’s food preparation equipment, I made do with saucepans of simmering water and a 60-milliliter syringe supplied by the space agency. The freeze-dried packages tersely list, in English and Russian, the name of the food, how much water to use, and how long to let it sit in its bath.

I learned the hard way that they’re double packed, with an inner pouch that looks sort of like the IV bags used in hospitals, and that the needle has to go into a specialized inlet that allows water to enter but lets nothing out. My shrimp cocktail’s inlet was hiding among the tails, and I managed only to irrigate the space between the bags. Finally I just cut open the freeze-dried packages and poured in the water.

Food scientists, not chefs, are in charge of NASA’s space meals. Portability and shelf life are as important as flavor and nutrition. Not that flavor matters much: Aromas don’t waft upward toward the nose in space. Bodily fluids do, though. They puff up the astronauts’ features into a Charlie Brown face that makes it hard to smell (and therefore taste). Space food isn’t restaurant cooking; it’s not even takeout. If anything, it’s more along the lines of a frozen dinner—but you get bigger portions from the frozen-food aisle.

I could easily have downed two packages of the shrimp cocktail, long an astronaut favorite. The six medium-size orange shrimp were just a touch chewy after their slapdash, 10-minute water bath, but they looked and smelled like what you get at the supermarket. NASA’s cocktail sauce is spiked with plenty of horseradish and salt. If anything can revive tired taste buds in space, this dish is it. I chased it with a pouch of powdered mango-orange drink. The lush but tangy mango flavor juiced up the orange’s sweetness, and the mango aroma was pronounced. It was delicious.

Aromas don’t waft upward toward the nose in space. bodily fluids do, though.

In deference to the international character of the space station, NASA has raided menus (or food courts) from around the world. For a south-of-the-border dinner, I gathered pouches of beef fajitas, black beans, and tortillas. The beans managed to be soft without getting all mushy, and they were seasoned enough to enliven the bland tortillas. But no amount of black beans could rescue the fajitas, two soggy rectangles of meat so uniform in shape it was as if they had been spit from a machine. The beef had a tender, brisketlike texture but none of the slow-cooked flavor you’d expect. I pined for a spoonful of picante sauce. My Mexican meal ended with a four-pack of Lorna Doone cookies and some dried peaches. Ironically, the peaches were meatier than the beef, with an intense flavor and a satisfying chewy texture.

The Asian-themed entrée sounded promising, but my hopes were dashed when I peeked into the pouch. The precut chicken pieces were a strange pinky-beige color, sort of an avian version of Malibu Barbie. The chicken was as tender as the beef fajitas, but the big problem was lack of flavor. The chicken was paired with a gummy wad of skinny noodles and some carrot slivers. The peanut sauce was a clunker too. Despite a healthy dose of black pepper—the liquid kind sticks to food in zero gravity—the sauce seemed dull and overprocessed.

Fortunately, an all-American dessert came to the rescue. The thermostabilized cranapple cobbler was a homey thing, sort of like chunky pie filling looking for a crust. Roughly mashed apples were tossed with some cranberries, lots of sliced almonds, and cinnamon. It was ugly, but for once I wasn’t left feeling cheated about the portion size. The almonds really made the dessert by giving it some crunch, although the spicing needed more complexity and the apples could have been sturdier.

The food scientists had also sent two breakfast items, freeze-dried “Mexican” eggs and a sausage patty. The eggs, colored a bright buttercup yellow, were bouncy and broke down into small, dry curds. Flavorwise they were like a reluctant suitor, vaguely sweet but unwilling to make the full taste commitment. Hot sauce, ketchup even, would work wonders here. Nothing, however, could have saved the sausage patty.

For solace, I turned to drink: NASA’s tea with lemon and sugar (no alcohol is offered in space). It had a good, strong lemon flavor, identical to the jarred powdered teas found in every supermarket. I could see why such a recognizable flavor would matter in space: It tasted of home. “When crew members come back, they’re ready for some home cooking,” says Vickie Kloeris, manager of the center’s Shuttle and ISS Food Systems. So was I.

Bill Daley is the food and wine critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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