Thursday, January 16, 2014

John F. Kennedy and the Rise of Space Food

In a famous 1962 speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, President John F. Kennedy reaffirmed America's commitment to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In it, he said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too….It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency…

Seven years later, on July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 space mission, astronaut Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module (nicknamed “The Eagle”) and became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon. The crew spent a total of two and a half hours on the moon, performing experiments and collecting soil and rock samples to return to Earth.

So what does this have to do with food? A lot, if you’re talking about space food! According to sources at NASA, the first American astronauts had to eat bland, bite-sized cubes of food, freeze dried powders, and semi-liquids that were squeezed from aluminum tubes.

By the late 1960s, the quality of space food had greatly improved. The Apollo astronauts were the first to have hot water, which improved the food's texture and taste. Today, a wide variety of menu items are available for astronauts in space. They can choose from beef stroganoff, chicken teriyaki, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, peanut butter, seafood, quiche, candy, cereal, nuts, and fruit.

Sandwiches with bread, however, are strictly forbidden. That's because there is no gravitational pull in space and so bread crumbs could float away and get stuck in equipment, clog air vents, or contaminate experiments. Condiments like ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise come in their normal forms, but salt and pepper are only available in liquid form because, like bread crumbs, the powdered versions could float away and pose a danger to the mission.

If you'd like to get a taste for what astronauts ate in space, here's a recipe for NASA Mini Vegetable Quiche from NASA Space Food Systems Laboratory and Scientific American:

4 whole eggs

4 whole eggs

3/4 cup canned low-fat evaporated milk

½ lb. fresh zucchini

4 oz. cream cheese

1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced

½ cup Swiss cheese, shredded

tops of 3 fresh green onions

1 cup corn flake crumbs

1 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tsp coarse grind black pepper

No-stick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 275°F. Spray petite loaf pans with the no-stick cooking spray. Coat each compartment of the loaf pans with corn flake crumbs. Wash green onions and zucchini thoroughly. Trim ends from zucchini. Grate zucchini. Chop sliced mushrooms and the green onions.

Place softened cream cheese into a bowl and beat until smooth. Add evaporated milk to the cream cheese, a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add eggs to the cream cheese mixture and mix until thoroughly combined. Heat sauté pan over medium heat. Melt butter and sauté chopped green onions and mushrooms just until soft, about 5 minutes. Add black pepper to sautéed vegetables. Mix well and set aside.

Combine sautéed vegetables with zucchini and Swiss cheese; mix well. Combine vegetable mixture with egg mixture and mix well. Add vegetable quiche to each compartment until the compartment is almost filled to the top. Bake pans of quiche for approximately 25-27 minutes at 275°F (until internal temperature is 170°F). The quiche will rise a bit during cooking then fall slightly. Allow quiche to cool before removing from pans.