As tropical storm Ernesto swirls about this week, it’s hanging up a lot of people, Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean included.
For now, the space shuttle Atlantis has been wheeled back into its hidey-hole until the storm passes, leaving Steve, along with his five mission mates, just hanging around Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast.
Each astronaut is allowed 350 guests at the Kennedy Space Center before blast off. But given the delay, and the fact that it’s Steve’s second time in space – been there, done that – many of his friends and family have already headed back to the land of igloos and beavers.
That leaves Steve, waiting, waiting, waiting.
I picture him suspended in some kind of limbo, like that quiet, unnerving twilight zone before dinner guests arrive, when there’s nothing to do but you can’t focus on anything, even a really good book – only times a thousand. So what’s he doing to squelch his nerves? Gorging on corn chips and salsa? Mojitos? Space food?
I don’t think Canadians, or anyone except Americans, think much about space travel these days. But there was a time, pretty much aligned with the era of black and white television, when journeys to space captured the world’s imagination (it wasn’t global then, just a world). The sputniks. The monkeys in cute little spacesuits. THE FACT THE RUSSIAN COMMIES GOT THERE FIRST.
And what with everybody riveted to their TV sets, impatiently flipping the rabbit ears around, space was all people could talk about. What would they see "out there"? What did it feel like floating and bumping around inside that crazy metal tube? Even the red-faced imagining of how did they pee?
In the early space programs, both Soviet and American scientists were really concerned about how astronauts or cosmonauts would eat. Weight, of course, was a huge concern with the food itself, ergo all the special foods, dehydrated and otherwise, that made their way into mainstream eating.
General Foods’ Tang orange drink powder went on every Gemini and Apollo mission, so even though the product had been around since 1959, they smartly marketed it to kids in the outside world. That also convinced Pillsbury to get into the space food business with its Space Food Sticks, a commercial spin-off of a chewy energy snack the company developed for NASA.
But in the early days of space travel, scientists were equally worried about the logistics of eating in weightless conditions. Would food be hard to swallow and, as a result, collect in the spacemen’s throats?
Turns out things did get stuck in the craw, but not because of the lack of gravity. John Glenn orbited the Earth three times in five hours on that historic day – Feb. 20, 1962 – in the first manned U.S. "space" flight. He proved that it was easy to eat once you got the food into your mouth, or at least the motion of eating was. For even NASA’s own archives admits that space food was pretty hideous.
Astronauts were forced to endure bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried foods, and semi-liquids in aluminum toothpaste-type tubes. The food was blah; they had trouble rehydrating the freeze-dried stuff; they hated squeezing the tubes. Crumbs from the bite-sized cubes had to be captured to prevent them from getting into the instruments, so things like cookies were coated with a thin edible layer of methyl cellulose to prevent the crumbs from floating about.
One astronaut in the Mercury program was so choked up over the food, he smuggled a bologna sandwich on board.
In the Gemini missions, eating was better, but still weird. The aluminum food tubes of the Mercury program were nixed because the containers weighed more than the food inside. Food was "canned" in plastic bags with one-way rehydration valves and a recloseable mouthpiece. A gun similar to a water pistol was used for adding water.
The menu selections could provide four days of meals before repeats occurred. A typical meal included shrimp cocktail, chicken and vegetables, toast squares, butterscotch pudding, and apple juice. Shrimp cocktails are still the number one menu choice.
But even with these offerings, astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard the five-hour Gemini 3 flight in 1965. Whether it was a lark or a truly desperate act, the contraband sandwich was eaten by mission mate Virgil "Gus" Grissom, resulting in a Congressional investigation and the first official reprimand of an astronaut.
In the Skylab there was enough space for a dining room table, something now abandoned for food trays that strap onto the astronauts’ legs. It was a pedestal where food trays were mounted. The three-astronaut teams would "sit down" by means of foot and thigh restraints. Knives, forks, and spoons were held magnetically to the food trays until needed. But if you moved too fast, a piece of meat or whatever would drift away.
By then there was a freezer for things like filet mignon and vanilla ice cream, and a fridge for fruits and drinks. By the time of the Apollo missions, fresh breads and cheese were included in the 80 different menu items.
Today, the sky’s the limit for space food. Dayna Steele Justiz at thespacestore.com assures us that astronauts eat what we eat. "A lot of our friends and neighbors have flown in space and were kind enough to add to this (grocery) list from their personal experience," she states on the site.
Really? Kraft Handi-Snacks Banana Pudding? Carnation Instant Breakfast? Quaker Instant Grits with Butter Buds? Sounds pretty spacey to me. And I know you don’t use small plastic dropper bottles with liquid pepper suspended in oil and salt dissolved in water.
But who knows? Maybe Steve is gorging on Instant Grits with Butter Buds this instant. Or maybe he’s distracting himself with one last handful of something more down-to-earth like Pop Rocks or Space Shuttle Gummies. Or maybe he’s just lying on his bunk, flat out like a freeze-dried banana, staring at the ceiling and listening to the storm howl outside, wondering what on Earth he’s gotten himself into.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who once backpacked a life-sized tuna casserole into inner space at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.