Friday, September 15, 2017

Pie in the Sky

“Tang: breakfast of astronauts!” cried the TV ad.

Nope. Tang was never any part of their breakfast. Most astronauts couldn’t stand the stuff. Buzz Aldrin once said bluntly, “Tang sucks.”

Tang was concocted by Dr. William A. Mitchell—for General Foods, not NASA. In the fanciful world of food labeling, Tang is a “fruit-flavored drink,” which doesn’t mean flavored with fruit, but rather that it tastes fruit-ish. The only fruit-like ingredients in Tang are the first two on the label: sugar and fructose (which is sugar). Tang once introduced a version that advertised “half the sugar of 100% juice!” That sounds better than saying it has 100% less juice than juice. A single serving of original Tang contains six teaspoons of sugar.

At first, sales were not so sweet. Then John Glenn was given Tang in space to test whether a human could swallow in zero gravity. General Foods got wind of the experiment, and soon TVs were bleating that Tang was “breakfast of astronauts!” Kids like me clamored for Tang so we too could go to space, like wearing a hat might make us a cowboy.

With stars in their eyes, Pillsbury stole the idea and advertised their Space Food Sticks as “the first space food made available to the public!” They didn’t mention Space Food Sticks were never once eaten in space—the closest they ever got to NASA was the Space Center gift shop. Advertising the “nutritional balance needed for astronauts hard at work,” Space Food Sticks came in flavors like caramel and chocolate.

So what, then, is space food? There are a lot of challenges. You can’t use regular utensils, because if you drop a fork it won’t fall. It just floats around until someone, hopefully not your pilot, gets stabbed in the eye. The Space Food sticks commercial showed the brown, cigarette-shaped stick being slipped easily through a custom-fit hole they added to the astronaut’s helmet visor, which in real space would have killed him instantly.

There’s also a metric called “low residual.” It’s a polite way of saying NASA wants food to go into the inny-end of astronauts without much coming out the outy-end. I imagine Space Food Sticks came out looking pretty much the same as they went in.

Humans lose their sense of taste in space. Without gravity, mucus doesn’t drain. Nasal congestion dulls one’s sense of smell, and taste goes with it. Conversely, smells linger longer in space, and travel farther. They learned this when Skylab once offered its crew Paul Masson Cream Sherry. Beyond the bad idea of drunks in space, the smell traveling throughout the ship triggering everyone’s gag reflex.

Today’s spaceships have hot water and refrigeration. Meals are tailored to each astronaut. Guest countries display local pride. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was the first to drink a fresh-brewed coffee, thanks to an International Space Station device designed by Lavazza called the ISSpresso. For Italians, good coffee is the difference between adventure and “Sorry, I can’t live like this.”

Korea spent over a million dollars to create a space-worthy version of kimchi. It was served once, by astronaut Yi So-yeon, who retired from the space program as soon as she touched ground.

Swedish spaceman Christer Fuglesang was not allowed to bring reindeer jerky on board because Americans on the flight thought it would be “weird” so close to Christmas.

Carbonated drinks don’t work in space. Gravity separates bubbles from liquid in the stomach, but in space they stay mixed. A beer belch results in a kind of vomiting they call a “wet burp.” Nonetheless, barley grown in space was used to brew beer, just to prove we could if we had to.

Today, space food is still big business. While it was crafted for people who look to the heavens in wonder, most of it is bought by survivalists who stash it in holes in the ground.