Among the pressing questions mere terrestrials usually have about astronauts: Where do they go to the bathroom? What do they eat, and don't they get sick of the grub up there?
We've heard many a tale about their toilet woes and now we have a bit more info about cosmic cuisine on the International Space Station, where astronauts dine on processed versions of American and Russian food staples from their home countries, Newhouse News Service reports.
Chefs who stock the station for months-long stays must overcome a few challenges: meals have to stay fresh, they must be stored in packaging that can be stuck onto a wall or tray so it doesn’t drift off in micro-gravity, and even dry ingredients, like spices, need to be packed in liquid so they, too, don't float away.
Food scientists in the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston try to accommodate the astronauts' need for variety beyond dry foods like cookies and candy. They've come up with single servings of shrimp cocktail, tortillas, chocolate pudding and meat loaf packaged in plastic sacks with Velcro affixed to them so astronauts can attach their meals to the wall or a tray when it comes time to open them up.
They satisfy their taste buds with spices (Asian condiments are popular; ditto Mexican, since astronauts are used to Southwest dishes from their Houston base) stored in oil-filled droppers.
Thanksgiving will be a little different. Astronauts will eat smoked turkey, candied yams, cornbread dressing, green beans amandine and a long-lasting apple-cranberry concoction that food scientists developed four years ago after astronauts complained that cookies and dried fruit weren’t satisfying desserts.
Russians bring along "this freeze-dried cottage cheese item with fruits and nuts that's supposed to be very good," Michele Perchonok, the shuttle food system manager, told the news service.
But there's hardly a seasonal menu. New processed-food meals are developed only every three to five years, even though astronauts get bored of granola bars, candy and other dry goods. And they can't very well grow crops up there.
The menu will get a makeover when Japan sends astronauts to the station and brings along freeze-dried teriyaki, noodles and green tea, Perchonok said.
One more amusing tidbit: Just like children the world over, astronauts have to clean their plates. "If they don't, it's going to start smelling," Perchonok said. "It's not like you can put it down the garbage disposal. ... You can't open a window and air the place out."
Image of STS-16 mission specialists Shane Kimbrough and Sandra Magnus playing with fruit floating about the Space Shuttle Endeavour on Nov. 16, 2008/NASA