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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Our Food

When It Comes to Living in Space, It's a Matter of Taste

NASA has come a long way from Tang and toothpaste-like chow, but even with more Earthlike vittles, spicy food seems to be a favorite of taste bud-challenged space station crews



NASA

It's possible that hot sauce and salsa could be key ingredients to the success of a manned mission to Mars. The kicked-up condiments already came close to causing a mutiny on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2002 when astronaut Peggy Whitson threatened to bar entry to the crew of the visiting shuttle Atlantis unless they came bearing a promised resupply of the spicy stuff. Only when shuttle commander Jeff Ashby announced that he had the goods did Whitson say, "Okay, we'll let you in then." Whitson was joking, but the need for astronauts to be able to  spice up their food while in orbit is no laughing matter.

Since the early days of manned spaceflight, astronauts have reported that eats taste different in microgravity. Many said that flavors are dulled and they crave fare that is spicier and considerably more tart than they would prefer on Earth. It's not uncommon for space travelers to enjoy cuisine in space that they couldn't stand at home, and vice versa.

Tasty varietal meals may seem like a luxury for shorter shuttle missions,  but they may be just what the doctor ordered on long  missions to the moon and eventually to Mars as well as during six-month tours of duty on the space station. "Food is just a comfort thing that [the astronauts] would like to feel they have some input on or some control over," says Vickie Kloeris, manager of ISS food systems at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It's just a big psychological thing and I don't know if we've flown anyone to station who hasn't been concerned about their food."

Kloeris says there's little scientific data to back up astronauts' claims that taste changes in space, despite a number of studies since the 1970s on the effect of microgravity on the sense of taste and smell. In essence, she says, study participants were split on the matter. One of the most prominent physiological changes associated with spaceflight has to do with fluid shifting from the lower to the upper parts of the body because of weightlessness. This facial and upper-body swelling also creates significant nasal congestion, and because odor is essential to the sense of taste, a decrease in the perception of flavors would occur. But there could be other taste-wasting culprits: Odors from different environmental and thermal systems in spacecraft are also suspected of distracting spacefarers' sensory perception.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski—a physician and veteran of five shuttle missions who has studied human fluid shifts during spaceflight, subscribes to the nasal congestion theory. "It's the same as having a cold or allergies," he says, "a stuffy nose definitely dampens your sense of smell and consequently your sense of taste." As for his own experience, Parazynski, who admits he is not a fan of shrimp cocktail on Earth, says he couldn't get enough of it on orbit. He's not alone—this is a favorite among astronauts, particularly because of the spicy, horseradish-based sauce that coats the shrimp.

Parazynski also notes that the shuttle has a "sterile" smell, which when combined with other odors, such as the scent of their rinse-free shampoo, can be somewhat distracting.

Mission specialist Clayton Anderson, who spent 152 days on the ISS as a flight engineer for Expedition 15 in 2007, says he only suffered from congestion the first few days there, although it returned intermittently. Nevertheless, he found some foods to be bland, whereas others that he had tasted and disliked preflight, such Tvorg (a tangy Russian cottage cheese dish with fruit and nuts) became space station faves.

Kloeris adds that it doesn't help that food is "served in narrow pouches and not on plates, so appetizing odors don't waft up into your nose the way they do in normal gravity." Anderson also reported that the monotony of the limited rotation of foods could make meals seem boring. This, Kloeris says, is where the condiments become important. Besides giving needed flavor to bland-tasting foods—adding a dash of salsa or peppery hot sauce can add variety to the space menu.

Parazynski says limited choices are no big deal on relatively short shuttle missions, which astronauts view sort of like camping trips—the grubb may not be the best, but who cares? Plus, Kloeris says, crews tend not to eat as much on shorter flights, because their schedules are jam-packed. But it's a different story on longer slogs and on the space station, where astronauts often run out of favorite foods, not to mention hot sauces and other coveted condiments.

Space Sushi?
Space station vittles are currently supplied by NASA and the Russian space agency. But foodies on board will be pleased to know that the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) will soon be sending edibles when the crew expands from three to six astronauts later this year. Astronauts can request specific foods as part of a personal pantry that is sent up to the station. And Kloeris says the space agencies have flown up just about every condiment you can imagine, including pesto sauce, Thai chili–garlic paste and Japanese wasabi. (Crew member Sunni Williams had a well-publicized spill of this sinus-clearing sushi condiment that took days to clean up.)

ISS crews have also developed their own flavor-boosting strategies. Parazynski  says that he, along with fellow astronauts, found coffee (which relies heavily on the odor of its more than 500 chemical components for its flavor) to be disappointing in orbit. His solution was to create a pseudo-espresso of sorts by adding significantly less hot water to the pouch than was directed.

In an attempt to add fresh nuggets to the menu, the NASA Space Life Sciences Laboratory has been testing fruiting plants, such as certain varieties of strawberries, that could potentially be grown in  the low-light conditions of spacecraft. But for now, a bold cup o' java and an abundant supply of sauces and spices may just what's needed to hit the spot in space.

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