Saturday, July 24, 2010
SANDWICHES IN SPACE
I’ve been reading Mary Roach’s new book Packing For Mars, which she describes as being
about “the small comedies and everyday victories” of space travel. So it’s not concerned
with the great adventure of space, more with poop and pee and the dangers of vomiting
into your space helmet (actually not as risky as you might imagine). But the two chapters
that really rock are called “Discomfort Food” and “Eating Your Pants,” which are about
eating in space.
You might think astronauts on a mission might have more to think about than food, but it
seems to be a subject they get very excited and worked up about. My guess is that being
an astronaut, although sometimes thrilling and sometimes terrifying, is more often actually
pretty boring, and so they spend a lot of time looking forward to the next meal, like when
you’re in hospital or on a plane. When the next meal arrives and turns out to be apple puree
in a tube you can see where problems might arise.
Most space food, it seems, is pretty bad, and of course the astronauts know this better than
anybody, which is why in 1965 John Young smuggled a Wolfie’s corned beef sandwich
onto Gemini III to surprise his crewmate Gus Grissom. It was only a 5 hour flight so it must
have been done for laughs rather than to whet a jaded appetite, and after two hours Young
duly produced his sandwich. That's John Young, below. We even have the dialogue.
GRISSOM: Where did that come from?
YOUNG: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
GRISSOM: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.
YOUNG: It was a thought, anyway.
YOUNG: Not a very good one.
Not very dramatic, and not really very many laughs, though apparently there was hell to pay
when they got down to earth. It showed that astronauts weren’t necessarily sober rule
followers. But it could surely have been much worse. What if he’d smuggled nachos and
dip and a couple of Coors on board? Mary Roach tells us that beer in space is a disaster: it
simply turns to foam.
Roach also refers to something called The Astronaut’s Cookbook. I acquired a copy. It’s by
Charles T. Bourland, who spent 30 years working on food for spaceflight, and Gregory L.
Vogt, a science writer. It’s a very singular book.
Partly it’s about science and history, describing the kinds of food that do and don’t work ins
space. “Irradiated meat ... cooked, packaged in flexible foil-laminated retort pouches, and
sterilized by zapping it with ionizing radiation” works just fine, apparently.
There are some fun pictures in the Astronaut’s Cookbook of people eating in space.
Sometimes we see that the meal tray has to be strapped to the astronaut’s leg to stop it
floating away, and there’s a photograph of Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri with a
floating Japanese apple, which the book tells us is “banned in the US, so NASA had to get
special permission from the USDA to import them and follow a strict protocol to insure all
seeds were destroyed.” You just know that “strict protocol” probably involved doing
something weird with the guy’s poop.
There are some fairly ordinary recipes for pea soup, meatloaf and apricot cobbler, which
have to be thermo-processed before going into space. And then there are some celebrity
recipes: Emeril’s Mardi Gras Jambalaya and Rachel Ray’s 5 vegetable fried rice with 5-
spice pork: these have to be freeze dried.
And then, incredibly it seemed to me, there’s a recipe for a Frozen Space Sandwich: “place
meat and cheese on bread … slice diagonally … place in bag and freeze.” It’s not exactly
However, one of the most fascinating parts of the book shows a sample menu for the food
eaten on the International Space Station Expedition Five, from 2005. The crew was partly
Russian, and partly American and so the food alternated on a daily basis; Russian food one
day, American food the next. On the Russian days it would be borsch, sturgeon and jellied
pike. On the American days it would be tuna noodle casserole, tortillas and shrimp
Above is a shot taken on Expedition Five. The official caption reads, “View of Astronaut
Peggy Whitson, flight engineer (left) and Cosmonaut Valery Korzun, commander (right),
eating a meal in the Service Module (SM)/Zvezda. Tomato and hamburger are floating.” It
was evidently taken on one of the American days.
Whether this helped foster international understanding I don’t know; it seems unlikely. I
can’t quite imagine those all-American astronauts smacking their lips at jellied pike, but
then again maybe it wasn’t very good jellied pike and the Russians didn’t enjoy it either.
Perhaps there was a shared agony. There’s nothing quite like really bad food for bringing