Beyond Tang: Food in Space



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NASA's Johnson Space Center invited The Kitchen Sisters to visit its "hidden kitchen." On the eve of NASA's scheduled launch of space shuttle Atlantis, The Kitchen Sisters present a brief history of space food.

"This is Tiffany Travis calling from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. We'd like to invite The Sisters to come to our space food lab where our food scientists create meals for our astronauts on board the shuttle and the space station. I thought you might be interested in what astronauts are eating 220 miles above the earth. Bread is the number one enemy in space. You do not want crumbs floating around in microgravity getting into the electronics. Come take a look." — Hidden Kitchens Hotline Message #2203

We took Travis up on her invitation and set off traveling to Houston. Along the way, we followed the trails of some of the many Hidden Kitchens Texas calls that we had received over the year. Calls about oil barrel barbeques, cowboy kitchens, oystermen on Galveston Bay, the tamale lady at Fuel City in Dallas, a restaurant tucked down a driveway in Fort Worth, a car wash kitchen in El Paso, the garage kitchens of Vietnamese residents in Houston, and the space food kitchens of NASA.

Tubes. Cubes. Space Sticks. Tang.

The first American astronaut to eat in space dined on bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried foods, and semi-liquids squeezed from an aluminum toothpaste-like tube. Years later, astronaut John Glenn requested Tang for his return to space, but now astronauts can choose from an ever-expanding list of meals that the food scientists at NASA keeps cooking up.

If you're game to try some space food - hydrated and ready-to-eat - or if you'd rather "collect" or have some "leftovers" — one of the rare last Apollo spoon-pouches of peach ambrosia, or beef pot roast which comes with a certificate guaranteeing its authenticity — it's all available online.

And then there are Space Sticks. Pillsbury used its role as a food supplier on Apollo 11 as a launching pad for a spin-off named Space Food Sticks, which were added to the menu for the Skylab astronauts. Three different flavors, three sticks a day. The long, chewy sticks could slide into an airtight port located in an astronaut's helmet.

Farming in Space

Michele Perchonok, a top Advanced Food System official at the NASA Johnson Space Center, describes what it would take to keep astronauts fed on the long mission to the red planet:

"A mission to Mars is likely to last at least 24 months, six to go, six to return and 12 months on the planet. As we go on to longer-duration missions, it makes sense to become a little more self-sufficient with our food. The ultimate way of doing that is growing crops and processing them into food.

"On the outpost of the moon as well as Mars, it is very likely we will grow vegetables and fruits, and then we'll have a real galley because you've got 1/6th gravity for the moon or 3/8th gravity for Mars, so you can actually prepare foods and not be eating out of packages all the time.

"We'll also start looking at bringing up in bulk items like wheat berries or soybeans and then processing those into edible ingredients, like with the wheat berries we'd make wheat flour and then we'd be able to do pasta or cereal or breads. The food itself probably won't change a whole lot. As the missions grow longer, the food lab's attention will be directed to longer shelf-lives and growing ingredients," Perchonok says.

NASA continues to collaborate with scientists, students, inventors and innovators around the world as it works toward its goal of a manned flight to Mars.

Prof. Joseph Marcy of Virginia Tech, one of many people working on designing packaging for space food, talked about the challenge of planning how to feed astronauts on a mission to Mars at the annual Taste3 food symposium in Napa, Calif.

To hear about "towing biosphere gardens trailers to Mars," watch Marcy's presentation online.


Our thanks to the NASA Johnson Space Center, Tiffany Travis, Astronaut Bill McArthur, Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, Dr. Vickie Kloeris, Dr. Michelle Perchonok, the ISS (International Space Station) Fan Club, Tim Ferris and Maeve McGoran.

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And on this day before the scheduled launch of the Shuttle Atlantis, we're going to take you into space for a meal. It's part of our series, Hidden Kitchens.

Months ago, we opened a phone line on MORNING EDITION and asked you to tell us about unusual cooking in your communities. And today, thanks to that phone line, the Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson present this exploration of space food.

Ms. TIFFANY TRAVIS (NASA): Hi, Kitchen Sisters. This is Tiffany Travis calling with the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I just thought the sisters would be interested to know what foods are being eaten 220 miles above the Earth. We would like to invite you to come out and take a tour of our space food lab, where our scientists create and package space food for our astronauts. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you.

(Soundbite of beep)

Ms. VICKIE KLOERIS (NASA): My name is Vickie Kloeris. I've been involved with space food for over 20 years. I am manager of the International Space Station Food System here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Early on, in the space program, foods were all either cubed or tubed. When I came here, all we had was the shuttle program; food was way down on the list of priorities. A lot of it remembers viewed shuttle flights as camping trips. Yes, food was nice to have, but just send whatever.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: In space, they drank Tang. They mixed it like this in a zero-G pouch. Tang, chosen for the Gemini astronauts.

(Soundbite of blast)

Unidentified Man #1: Have a blast. Have some Tang.

Ms. KLOERIS: A lot of people over the years have asked me, wasn't Tang created for the space program? And the truth of the matter is, no, it was not. Tang chose to market the fact that they were used by the space program.

Mr. BILL McARTHUR (Astronaut): I'm Bill McArthur. I'm a NASA astronaut. Over the past 16 years, I flew onboard a space shuttle three times. And most recently flew onboard a Russian rocket to the International Space Station along with Russian Air Force Colonel Valery Tokarev and spent six months there as the commander of the 12th Space Station Expedition. For the six months Valery and I were up there, it's just the two of us.

Ms. KLOERIS: The food is a 50-50 combination on the International Space Station. The crew has to choose half their food from the U.S. menu and half the food from the Russian menu.

Mr. McARTHUR: We all like the shrimp cocktail. It's dehydrated. You really don't ever want to actually just examine a dehydrated shrimp.

Ms. KLOERIS: Presentation is very important to the psychology of food; and unfortunately in space we have very poor presentation. It's just a function of microgravity and there's not a whole lot we can do about it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McARTHUR: Sometimes I tried to simulate a jalapeno caleche(ph) in space - a dish that's very localized to southeast Texas. Take one of those flour tortillas, when we warm them up, it doesn't matter how many months they've been up there, they're nice and moist, and then put pork sausage links and a little bit of cheese and maybe some Tabasco sauce. On orbit, a lot of people develop a strong desire for very, very spicy foods.

Ms. KLOERIS: Now, our crew lives and trains in Houston, Texas; and so they get very used to our Houston cuisine. And the advantage of tortillas is that it doesn't create crumbs. Crumbs aren't good in microgravity, getting into the electronics and everything else, they'll float around.

(Soundbite of transmission)

Mr. McARTHUR: Our table, there's a little clamp to hold your spoon in place. Velcro everywhere...

(Soundbite of transmission)

Mr. McARTHUR: You become quite adept at hooking your toes under these handrails a couple of inches above the floor - just hang there. And sometimes you don't even bother. You've got a package in your hand, spoon in the other hand. You just sort of float.

Unidentified Man #2: Roger.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. MICHELE PERCHONOK (NASA): I'm Michele Perchonok. I am the manager of the food lab here as well as I manage the shelf food system and the exploration food system that will go to the moon and Mars. It's exciting and it's going to happen in 30-plus years.

It's obvious that we're going to have to grow some fruits and vegetables on the surface, because those are the kinds of things that really need to be fresh. By processing them, you're losing the aromas, the bright colors, the textures that everyone is going to want if you're away from home for two and a half years.

Then in addition, we could be growing soybeans, wheat flower, rice, peanuts, and then you can make pasta or bread, tofu. The crew is going to have to learn how to farm. And then also to be chefs or cooks in the kitchen.

Unidentified Child: (Unintelligible) space station. This is Neato(ph). Do you copy, Neato?

Mr. McARTHUR: I was pretty active on orbit, working with the worldwide amateur radio community. Between Valery and me, we made contact with 38 schools. I talked to operators on 90 different countries.

(Soundbite of radio)

Unidentified Man #3: Welcome to Brazil. Where is Ms. Valery Tokarev?

Mr. McARTHUR: He's right behind me, preparing dinner.

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, very nice. Preparing dinner, very good.

Mr. McARTHUR: On a normal day, we might only see each other at meal time. Meal times were our primary opportunity to share the pleasures of things that had gone well, to commiserate about experiments or activities that we were finding a little more frustrating.

Mr. VALERY TOKAREV (Russian Cosmonaut): Hello, this is Valery.

Mr. McARTHUR: Valery is a colonel in the Russian Air Force. I was a colonel in the American Army. We're about the same age. We've each been married about 30 years. We each have two children. We're both what some folks refer to as cold warriors, in that we both spent a significant portion of our military careers studying each other's military as our most threatening adversary.

But what we found is the things that we had in common were much greater than the differences. There are some Russian foods that are on my top 10 list; and there's some American foods that Valery particularly enjoys. We find it much more enjoyable to be friends than to be enemies.

INSKEEP: Space Food was produced by Devia Nelson and Nikki Silva and mixed by Jim McKee in collaboration with KUT in Austin. There are more stories in their book, "Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More," from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters. And you can read more about what astronauts eat in space at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.