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Houston, We Have a Menu

(Neil Armstrong - AP)
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 20, 1969, was a big day for my family. For one thing, it was my big brother Michael's 12th birthday. And we celebrated in the most memorable way possible: by gathering around the TV set to watch man take his first steps on the moon.

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I have a vague memory of eating spaghetti for dinner that night, and certainly there was cake (both cake and frosting made from boxed mixes). As for the astronauts, their first moon meal consisted of bacon squares, peaches, sugar-cookie cubes, pineapple grapefruit drink and coffee.

The meals developed for the Apollo mission marked a turn in the evolution of space food. Astronauts on the earlier, shorter Mercury and Gemini flights could get by on the nutrient-packed but unappetizing fare the space program had devised. But for those on longer trips, having food that was at once nutritious and appealing -- and appropriate to the confines of a space capsule -- was key.

The first space-food programs were informed by "scientific nutrition" and a modernist sensibility that yielded foods that were "efficient and high-tech" but barely edible, says Warren Belasco, author of "Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food." NASA chemically engineered "pills and paste" designed to provide calories, vitamins and minerals, "but the thing is, astronauts wouldn't eat it," Belasco says. Packaged in squeeze tubes or as bite-size cubes coated in gelatin to keep zero-gravity crumbs from escaping, it was little more than "edible biomass, food for function, not for the soul."

Belasco notes that the Russian space program took a different tack. "They took bread, cheese on board," he says. "But NASA was hung up on sanitation. The thought of crumbs flying around horrified them."

So it's little surprise that early astronauts typically lost weight on spaceflights. That was okay for missions lasting a couple of days, but for the eight-day Apollo 11 trip, and other Apollo flights that lasted up to 13 days, keeping the crew fully fed was essential.

"NASA had to look at this from two sides," says Michele Perchonok, manager of the space agency's shuttle food system. "There was the engineering and science side, figuring out how to make food safe and nutritionally acceptable. And there was the psychological, emotional side: How much do they enjoy it?"

Apollo astronauts were the first to have access to hot water, which allowed their menus to include dehydrated foods. "Instead of being just nutritionally adequate to keep them going," these meals, packaged like military MREs (meals ready to eat), "looked like normal food: sauce and meat," Belasco says.

There were other innovations -- such as thermo-stabilized food (essentially canned food in pouches) and the "spoon bowl," a plastic container holding rehydratable food. The astronaut could inject water into the container, then cut it open; the moistened food inside would cling to a spoon, allowing astronauts the simple pleasure of eating from a spoon instead of squeezing food from a tube into their mouths.

Today NASA can offer space explorers 180 varieties of freeze-dried foods and dozens of thermo-stabilized foods. In addition, astronauts are allowed to choose special favorites to be incorporated into the menu. While meals based on these NASA-supplied foods, from sweet and sour chicken to quiche Lorraine, are generally repeated on a seven-day cycle, Perchonok notes that shuttle crews often bring along foods representing their countries to share with fellow astronauts at the international space station. For instance, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette brought maple cookies and maple cream.

One thing that doesn't go into space: soda. "Carbonation doesn't work well in zero gravity," Perchonok says. "It causes dry burps. They're not comfortable."

And space cuisine still has limited appeal. "Taste seems to change in orbit," she says. "We think it's a combination of several scenarios," including the fact that body fluid shifts to the head up in space, which impairs the sense of smell. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of what we taste is what we smell," Perchonok says. Because hot air doesn't rise in space, "aromas might be at the astronaut's feet or elbows as easily as at his nose." The food's hot, but not piping hot, she adds, which might dampen its aroma; similarly, serving it from pouches instead of plates may reduce the smell. That might explain why Perchonok has noted that astronauts like to spice up the menu with extras such as hot sauces and soy sauce.

Still, space-program advances have influenced food consumption on Earth. Working with food-processing companies, NASA oversaw perfection of the freeze-drying process, which has become a common method of preserving food (one that's vastly improved the quality of backpackers' diets, for instance). Howard Bauman, a Pillsbury food scientist who worked with NASA, led the development of several food-safety systems that remain in use today, notably one called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points process, which involves identifying potential sources of contamination at every stage of food processing instead of waiting to inspect the final product. And experiments with micro-algae as a source of food and oxygen and as a means of waste disposal led to the development of nutritional additives containing DHA, a fatty acid that improves brain function and vision. Those additives are now featured in most infant formulas.

We're all 40 years older now. Yet we earthbound creatures still face many of the same dietary challenges those early space explorers and their supporters on the ground faced: Balancing nutrition with enjoyment. Ensuring our food's safety. Planning for a sustainable food supply, even if resources are scarce.

We can meet those challenges, right? After all, we put men on the moon.

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer reminisces about Space Food Sticks and Tang. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters."

See the new fitness and nutrition site at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.



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