There is a place where, no matter what you eat during the holidays, you'll never gain any weight.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are preparing for the fourth holiday season on the zero gravity research laboratory. Although the food is not mom's home cooking, today's selections are a huge advance over the "tubes and cubes" of the first meals in orbit more than 40 years ago.
On the Station, the holiday table is set with bungee cords and Velcro. There's no heirloom china or tablecloth. Astronauts eat from disposable plastic containers and aluminum pouches. Instead of a carving knife, scissors are more important for meal preparation.
But the dining room view is unmatched, more than 200 miles above the Earth, and the spirit of peace and good will is as warm as at any gravity-bound table. The diners on the Station hold a record among holiday travelers, during the course of a meal, they circle the Earth.
Space and zero gravity offer challenges for food preparation. There is no refrigerator or freezer aboard the Station, so food must remain good for long periods at room temperature. Many offerings are freeze-dried. Others are thermostabilized, just like some foods found in grocery stores that do not require refrigeration. Some items are canned, others, like candy, nuts and cookies, are fine just the way they are on Earth.
The top Station chef is Food Scientist Vickie Kloeris. She has worked in space food systems at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for 18 years. Kloeris oversees the area that manages the production and supply of Space Station and Space Shuttle food.
"Station crews have more than 250 food and beverage items they can select from the U.S. and Russian food systems, but they have to make their selections as early as a year before their flight," Kloeris said. "The choices range from barbecued beef to baked tofu, with probably the most popular item being shrimp cocktail," she said.
Do tastes change in space? Kloeris said although there is no scientific data to verify changes, many astronauts report a preference for spicy and tart foods and drinks.
Weightlessness also affects the food choices aboard the orbiting laboratory. Crumbly or loose foods can float out and contaminate the Station atmosphere, becoming an annoyance or even a hazard to crews and equipment. Many entrees and vegetables are packaged in a thick sauce that helps hold them in a bowl while they are eaten. Tortillas are favored over sandwich bread, because they create fewer crumbs and are easier to handle in microgravity. They also stay fresh longer than sliced bread.
Stocking the Station cupboard is an international effort; half the food is from Russia and half from the United States. The U.S. food comes from a variety of sources. Some comes straight off the shelves with only repackaging needed. Other items are custom-manufactured for space. The combination of the two food systems increases the variety of foods available to Station crews.
Before the launch of the Space Station, when Space Shuttle flights stayed in orbit only about 18 days, the variety of food available was not as extensive. Variety has become much more important, since crews stay in space for up to six months. One of the more popular items eaten by Station crews is a variation on a children's favorite that can easily be tried at home:
SPACE PB&J; WRAP
Ingredients: 1 Flour Tortilla Favorite Peanut Butter Favorite Jelly
Directions: Spread thin layer of peanut butter on tortilla. Add a thin layer of jelly. Fold and enjoy.
Information about space foods and additional recipes are on the Internet at:
Information about the Space Station, including dates and times to see it above many U.S. cities during the holidays is on the Internet at:
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