Tue, Jan 14, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Dinner in the cosmos

Retired Taiwanese food scientist for NASA shares with students stories from his 38-year career

By Han Cheung

This 2004 photo shows Mike Kuo on a zero-gravity flight to test a water filitration system for astronauts.

Photo courtesy of Mike Kuo

Mike Kuo (郭正光) wasn’t in Penghu’s Jhenhai Junior High School (鎮海國中) last week to discuss politics; instead he talked about testing water filters in zero gravity and developing sweet-and-sour pork for astronauts.

The former president of the US-based Formosa Association for Public Affairs may be known to Taipei Times readers for his opinion pieces, but Kuo also spends part of his visits to Taiwan talking to students about his 38-year career as a food scientist for NASA.

Kuo joined NASA in 1980, when it was recruiting for food experts for its Space Shuttle program, which launched its first flight in April 1981. His presentation is a fascinating journey from the 1960s, where astronauts munched on dry compressed chicken powder, to the modern day where they can enjoy fresh vegetables and chef-created meals.

Although nutrition, such as making up for calcium loss which is faster in space, is the main objective, Kuo says a significant part is to find ways to satisfy the astronauts’ appetites. His team has developed at least 80 types of food and 20 drinks over the years, covering the cuisine of the diverse crew on the International Space Station (ISS).

“For example, someone wanted sweet-and-sour pork, so we freeze dried fried pork and experimented with sugar, vinegar and tomato powder,” Kuo says. “We try to make their dining experience as similar to the conditions on Earth as possible. Eating is one of their main sources of enjoyment up there.”

SPACE FOOD EVOLUTION

Space food has come a long way, as Kuo shows photos of how it has evolved over the decades. It’s evident that the food scientists aren’t just trying to simulate food on Earth, but also the dining environment. Instead of just sucking out what looks like baby food from a packet in the early days, Kuo says they want the astronauts to be able to sit down and eat properly.

They even tried using hard plastic containers to resemble bowls at one point, but found it too heavy and bulky.

“It costs US$10,000 to send one pound of material into space,” Kuo says. “We have to minimize what they bring.”

All food needs to last at least two years. A photo of a standard meal includes Chessmen cookies, kidney beans, a sausage patty, pudding, Life Savers candy and lemonade. The innovations in the field continue, as astronauts can now grow fresh vegetables on board, and in October last year ISS astronauts were able to use 3D bioprinting to create artificial beef.

Kuo says that at first, his team designed strict daily meals for the astronauts to make sure they were getting adequate nutrition. But after finding out that many weren’t following the plan, NASA switched to a bar code system so they could at least track what the astronauts ate and advise accordingly.

Astronauts have reported that their taste buds tend to dull in space, and many reports show that they prefer sharper and spicier foods — evidenced with the immense popularity of Tabasco sauce aboard the ISS. While astronauts can also add salt and pepper water to their food, Kuo says too much salt can increase calcium loss, which is one of the major nutritional issues in zero gravity.

PRACTICAL ISSUES

Kuo spent at least five years testing ways to reduce calcium loss through diet. His team found that they could simulate space calcium loss conditions on Earth by having people lie down at a certain angle, and paid homeless people to serve as test subjects from four to 26 weeks.

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