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Houston, we have a potluck

Shrimp cocktail November 2, 1998
Web posted at: 2:31 p.m. EDT (1831 GMT)

From freeze-dried Kona to the coveted shrimp cocktail, shuttle meals a big deal

In this story:

By CNN Interactive Writer John Christensen

(CNN) -- Jim Reilly has lived in Antarctica, beneath the sea and on a space shuttle, and he says that dining on rehydrated shrimp cocktail a few hundred miles above Earth is one of life's abiding pleasures.

It may not look like much, freeze-dried to a desiccated fare-thee-well and served in plastic bags, but the shrimp cocktail is far and away the favorite of American astronauts during their extra-terrestrial sojourns.

"Some people eat it three meals a day, almost to the point of boredom for me," Reilly says. "I think it's because it's really spicy."

Former astronaut Story Musgrave claims credit for creating the shrimp cocktail rage. He told the members of one of his shuttle crews to include the spicy concoction on their personalized menus or they'd be sorry.

They didn't and -- once they'd tasted it -- they were not only sorry, but also downright covetous of his supply. It has become so popular that even the cosmonauts on the Mir space station regard it as treat.

During his first trip into space last January, the 44-year-old Reilly said he often mixed up a couple bags of it on the shuttle Endeavour and took them next door to the cosmonauts living on Mir.

For their contribution to these orbiting potlucks, the cosmonauts served up authentic Russian food, much of which Reilly recalls as being "outstanding."

"They were packaged in tins the way we get tuna, and they had to open them with a hand-operated can opener," Reilly says. "But generally they were quite good. Of course, some were quite a bit different, too."

Not just fuel

Food in space is not merely fuel, Reilly says, it is something astronauts look forward to and even dote on. He says it is something that will be critically important to those -- and he expects to be one of them -- who help assemble the new International Space Station beginning in December.

"Meals can make or break an environment," he says. "You have to have food you like. There is very limited recreation on the shuttle, or on the space station. One thing to do is look out the window. The other is deciding what you want to eat that day."

Reilly knows this not just from his Endeavour mission but also as a research scientist in Antarctica in 1977 and 1978 and as an exploration geologist who spent 22 days aboard U.S. Navy submarines before becoming an astronaut.

Tube foods
No forks or spoons went on Glenn's first space mission, only toothpaste-like tubes of applesauce  

While cruising in the Gulf of Mexico aboard a Navy research sub, he says, the food was similar to that on the shuttle. On the full-sized attack and missiles subs, he says, the food is said to be excellent.

"Of course, they have refrigerators, too," he says, meaning they have the ability to store fresh or frozen foods indefinitely and create the kind of meals one might eat at home.

Not only are there no refrigerators on the shuttles -- space and weight being major considerations -- but Reilly says there were times when he was so busy on Endeavour that he only had time for granola bars and coffee.

Tastes change in microgravity

Generally speaking, however, meal times are, as he puts it, "sacrosanct. They're the only time we could get together and talk. Most of the time, we're so busy we won't have time to talk to each other."

Meals in space don't differ much from the kind of meals most people have while camping. Much of the food is freeze-dried and bagged to give it indefinite shelf life.

Water and a convection are used to bring the food back to a state that Reilly says closely approximates what they look like on Earth. Spaghetti and meatballs on the Endeavour looked pretty much like spaghetti and meatballs on Earth.

Eating M&Ms
Some zero-gravity favorites include M&Ms, barbecue and beef jerky  

But some astronauts find that their sense of taste changes in microgravity.

"When you're in orbit, there's a shift of fluid from your lower body to your head," Reilly says. "It's like hanging upside down. You get that puffy-headed feeling a lot of times, like having stuffed up sinuses."

As a result, many season things differently in orbit than they would on Earth. And there are other things for which they have no appetite at all.

Reilly, for example, couldn't stomach hot dogs. "They taste different," he says. "So did the barbecued beef."

'More than you can eat'

Before a mission, each crewmember meets with NASA dietitians who determine what their tastes are, and to ensure that their meals -- including those for vegetarians -- are nutritionally balanced.

"They'll suggest a menu," Reilly says, "and we'll modify them based on our desires. They pretty much give us free rein."

And there's always more than you can eat, Reilly says, estimating that he consumed only about 70 percent of the food provided for him on Endeavour.

"If you're doing EVAs (spacewalks) you're burning a lot of calories and you need the food. But in the orbiter, generally, your caloric needs are pretty low."

The food listed on the menus for the Discovery mission appears bountiful, indeed.

Every day of the mission, for example, the menu for Curt Brown's first meal of the day -- Meal A -- is the same: peaches, fruit cocktail, a sausage pattie, Rice Krispies, banana pudding, a granola bar and fruit punch.

Pilot Steve Lindsey, by comparison, begins one day with granola and raisins, a breakfast roll, pears, cocoa and Kona coffee. Another day he gets fruit cocktail, two sausage patties, a breakfast roll, two tortillas, peach-apricot drink and Kona coffee again.

Fresh food goes fast

Glenn
Discovery astronauts, from left, Chiaki Mukai, John Glenn and Curtis Brown sample space foods at the Johnson Space Center earlier this year  

There is considerable variation in Meal B, although most of the astronauts seem to begin with the celebrated shrimp cocktail before moving on to turkey salad spread or spaghetti and meatballs, carrot sticks, tortillas, peaches, chocolate pudding, candy-coated chocolates and lemonade.

Meal C on Day 7 for mission specialist Scott Parazynski is shrimp cocktail, beefsteak, rice with butter, Italian vegetables, tortillas, pineapple, a brownie and pineapple drink.

Complementing the meals is fresh food such as apples and oranges, which are kept in a general pantry where there are also other snacks and condiments.

Fresh foods enjoy the same shelf life on the shuttle as they do on Earth, Reilly says, but they are very popular and usually are gone in the first three or four days of a mission.

According to an unwritten rule aboard shuttles, food not eaten during a meal is fair game for the other astronauts.

"If you don't eat your food that day," he says, "it becomes available for someone else, and they just might pirate it."

Tortillas an 'all-purpose target'

Reilly admits to being a "coffee snob" and says the coffee on Endeavour delighted him, even though it was freeze-dried.

"Kona coffee was one of the offerings," he says. "It was really outstanding. In fact, add a little cream and sugar and it may have been better on orbit than it was on Earth. It was my favorite."

Beef jerky was another. "I carried it wherever I went," he says.

Right up there with shrimp cocktail in the pantheon of astronaut food favorites are tortillas. They are used as vehicles for everything from peanut butter and jelly to hamburger patties, chicken salad and even baked chicken with hot sauce.

"They're an all-purpose target," Reilly says.

space food
NASA offers take-home space food at the Kennedy Space Center  

Reilly also discovered that eating in space was not nearly as difficult as he expected. Everything comes in bags, and must first be rehydrated. Then an "X" is cut in the bag, and the astronaut uses one hand to hold the flaps nearly closed, leaving just enough room to spoon out the food.

"You use surface tension to hold the food on the utensils," Reilly says, "but you tend to be careful about how fast you move. You can't make any quick changes of direction, or it slings the food off and then you have to clean it up.

"The food won't go far, and you have to catch it in the air, because it won't hit the floor. But it's really kind of a mess, and you have to be careful. You don't want something floating around, because it's not like on the ground where something hits the floor. In three dimensions, it's an order of magnitude worse."

'I was looking for salad'

The notion of stray Rice Krispies, globs of vanilla pudding, the odd piece of candy or a few rogue cashews floating about in a shuttle summons thoughts of zero-gravity food fights.

Reilly says he has never heard of one, but "That doesn't mean that you might not get beaned with the odd peanut or carrot every now and then."

When he returned to Earth after spending 211 hours in space last January, Reilly said he had one food craving in particular.

"I was looking for a salad," he says. "I usually eat one every day, and I kind of missed it."


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