Nasa’s scientist cooks have a lot on their plate catering to rigours of dining in space
Ms Vickie Kloeris would have liked nothing more than to suffer the traditional anxieties of Thanksgiving: Would the turkey be moist? Would the in-laws get along? But it was hard to concentrate on such mundane matters when you had things on your mind like giving your soup enough viscosity so that it stuck to a spoon without the benefit of gravity. As the manager of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) space food systems laboratory, Ms Kloeris is in charge of the agency’s food production, including the irradiated turkey and thermostabilised, candied yams that two astronauts tore into Thursday, 385km overhead aboard the International Space Station.
They must fold into their cooking considerations unnecessary to the earth-bound. Salt and pepper, for instance, can’t be served in shakers because in space, the contents would scatter before making it onto the food. So each gets mixed with liquid – salt with water and pepper with olive oil – and placed in squeeze bottles. Astronauts then swab the mixture on.
Crumbs are also taboo. In microgravity, they would float forever. If enough crumbs build up, they could clog air filters or pose contamination risks. So food must be designed with precision. Bread is baked so each piece is surrounded in crust, akin to an unsliced hamburger bun, to avoid flaking. And crackers are baked into bite-sized pieces, so they are never broken outside the astronauts’ mouths.
But even today’s space-age food formulas won’t cut it as Nasa looks beyond the heights reached by the shuttles and the space station – all the way, some believe, to Mars. Nasa’s best estimates are that such a trip might take five years. Since food currently prepared for space travel doesn’t have a shelf life longer than one year, radically new approaches are being explored – such as growing crops on board a spaceship. Towards that end, Ms Kloeris’ staff has a new task these days – testing the shelf life of various foods under a variety of heat and moisture conditions.
Those sorts of topics, however, gave way to a simpler pleasure on board the International Space Station Thursday. Astronaut Foale said he planned to ‘remember all the good things in life’ during dinner. In the time it took him to finish eating, he circled the planet.