Space shuttle: flying food, spicy condiments take center stage

As the space shuttle Atlantis and seven astronauts prepare for today's launch, culinary concerns will be the least of their worries, but after blasting into outer space, food - especially all manner of condiments - will be a hot topic.

Condiments are provided such as ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Salt and pepper are available but only in a liquid form because astronauts can't sprinkle salt and pepper on their food in space - it would simply float away. There is a danger ketchup, salt and pepper or other favorites could clog air vents, contaminate equipment or get stuck in an astronaut's eyes, mouth or nose, NASA's Space Food Website says.

After a blob of wasabi threatened the International Space Station earlier this year, the focus on food in spaceships has heightened.

As for wasabi - the hot green stuff that goes so well with sushi - reports are that the condiment has been eliminated from meals couldn't be confirmed. You may recall Astronaut Sunita Williams in March was trying to make a pretend sushi meal with bag-packaged salmon and accidentally squirted a load of the green stuff into the air. After a lengthy cleanup, the wasabi was exiled to a cargo bay.

Despite its "threat" to the astronaut, spicy foods are popular in space because most of the food is dried in one form or another and zero gravity does nothing good for sinuses or flavor. And this article notes "NASA's food laboratory carefully balances diets between six categories: beverage, rehydratable, intermediate moisture, thermostabilized, irradiated, and natural form."Yum. Astronaut Don Pettit brought along small cans of green chilies on one Space shuttle trip. On a previous mission, taco sauce had become carefully guarded currency.

Astronaut Sid Gutierrez once said space shuttle crews always take spicy accouterments like taco sauce to make food taste better. The taco sauce, he said, also could be used for barter. "If it was your turn to say, clean the latrine, you could trade for two packets of taco sauce," he said.

Of course it's not all flying food and hot condiments. According to NASA's Website, astronauts eat three meals a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are also many types of foods an astronaut can choose from such as fruits, nuts, peanut butter, chicken, beef, seafood, candy, brownies, etc... Drinks range from coffee, tea, orange juice, fruit punches and lemonade.

Preparation varies with the food type. Some foods can be eaten in their natural form, such as brownies and fruit. Other foods require adding water, such as macaroni and cheese or spaghetti.

An oven is provided in the space shuttle and the space station to heat foods. There are no refrigerators in space, however so space food must be stored and prepared properly to avoid spoilage, especially on longer missions.

As on Earth, space food comes in packages that must be disposed. Astronauts must throw their packages away in a trash compactor inside the space shuttle when they are done eating.

Some packaging actually prevents food from flying away - always a major concern. This is the reason tortillas are taken along on the flight rather than bread - tortillas make far less crumbs than bread and crumbs are bad because they can potentially float around and get stuck in filters or an astronaut's eye, NASA says.

NASA says Space Shuttle foods are individually packaged and stowed for easy handling in microgravity. All food is precooked or processed so it requires no refrigeration and is either ready to eat or can be prepared simply by adding water or by heating.

The only exceptions are the fresh fruit and vegetables. Without refrigeration, the fresh foods must be eaten within the first few days of the flight or they will spoil.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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