Status Report

Space Station Science Officer Ed Lu’s Journal: Entry #3

By SpaceRef Editor
June 13, 2003
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Space Station Science Officer Ed Lu’s Journal: Entry #3
Ed Lu

Eating at Cafe ISS

This week I thought I’d write about a subject near and dear to my heart —
food. You are what you eat after all. First off, let me say I actually like
the food here. It isn’t quite like Mom’s cooking, but it isn’t bad! In fact
it isn’t really cooking at all, more like re-heating or re-hydrating.

We don’t have a real kitchen up here, but we do have a kitchen table. You
might wonder of what use a table is if you can’t set anything down on it,
but we have bungee straps and Velcro on the tabletop so you can keep your
food containers, spoon, napkins, etc. from floating away. You can find Yuri
and I around the table 3 times a day. In fact the table, which is located in
the Service Module, is kind of the social center of the ISS. Even though we
only have 2 crew members now, it is where we congregate when we have time
off. Of course there are no chairs around the table, what we do is float
around the table while we prepare our meals and eat. There are a couple of
handrails on the floor to slide your feet under to stabilize yourself.

Next to the table is our water dispenser, which has a tap for warm water and
hot water. That’s right, no cold water. If you want a cold drink, you need
to prepare the drink, then leave it for a while in one of the colder
locations on ISS. It will never get really cold, so the next really cold
drink I have will be when I get back to the ground! You get used to having
warm drinks though, and it really isn’t a problem. Speaking of which, we
don’t have a refrigerator up here either, so all of our food is canned,
dehydrated, or otherwise packaged so it doesn’t need refrigeration. So of
course this means no fresh fruit, vegetables, etc. That also means we can’t
keep leftovers!

As for utensils, the only utensil we use is a spoon. Don Pettit had a pair
of chopsticks up here, but I haven’t found where he stashed them yet, so I
can use them! It turns out there is no need for a fork or a knife. All of
the food that requires a utensil to eat has some sort of sauce or at least
some moisture to it, so it naturally sticks to the spoon. This is the same
effect on the ground that allows drops of water to stick to windows, here it
allows us to eat without having our food fly all over the place. This force
isn’t very strong, so you have to move fairly slowly when eating, or the
food will literally fly right off your spoon (and onto the wall).

Our drinks are all dehydrated and come in packets. We have lots of different
kinds of juices, tea, coffee, and milk. The juices are really tasty — my
favorites are apricot and apple with black currant. The Russian drink
packets are clear plastic and have a simple one-way valve where you add
water; while the other side of the packets has a built in straw. The design
is ingenious; you just cut off one end of the packet with scissors to open
up the valve, slide the packet onto the water tap, turn on the water, mix
well, and then use the scissors on the other end to open up the straw. The
problem is that if you aren’t careful, they have a tendency to leak and it
is easy to get juice or tea all over yourself or the walls. The same
property of liquids that lets them stick to your spoon also makes liquids
stick to your face. I know this from experience.

Much of the Russian-supplied food comes in cans. There are larger cans for
main course type dishes and smaller cans with things like fish, eggs,
cheeses, etc. Some of the canned foods I really like include lamb with
vegetables, beef with barley (kind of like a meatloaf), sturgeon, and
chicken with rice. We have a food warmer that heats up the cans, and then we
open them up with a can opener. We open the cans almost all the way but not
quite completely so that the lid is still attached (less things floating
around). The cans have no velcro on them to stick them to the table, and of
course while you are eating out of a can you can’t really put it under a
bungee strap either. So if you need your hands free, you can put a couple of
drops of water on the bottom of the can, and the water will help it to stick
to the tabletop. If it is just for a short while, you can just let the can
float as long as you are careful to keep an eye on where it is going.
Remember that you don’t have to worry about food spilling out of the can if
it turns upside down!

We also have a lot of other dehydrated foods, such as tvorog (a sweet
Russian cottage cheese with nuts — my favorite breakfast item), vegetables,
pastas, potatoes, fried rice, shrimp, etc. You just add water to these
packages and wait a few minutes, then cut a flap in the package to get your
spoon in, and eat. Some of my favorites up here are the Russian soups:
borsch, beef and barley, spicy lamb soup, and others. If you have ever been
to Russia you know how delicious the soups are there, and quite a variety of
them are supplied for us. When re-hydrating all these items, you have to
make sure the water is mixed thoroughly or you get dry powdery sections in
your food. It helps to shake the packages back and forth, or to hold the
package in your outstretched arms and flap them up and down so centrifugal
force moves the water through the package. So if you see an astronaut
holding a food package and waving his arms up and down, it isn’t just
because he or she is really excited about lunch (although that may be true),
but probably they are just mixing the water through their food. This trick
also works great to settle all the food down to the bottom of the packet so
you can cut the packet open without getting food all over your scissors.

Much of the American-supplied foods come in sealed pouches. These are
similar to military MREs if you know what those are. They are basically like
canned foods, but without the can. Here all you have to do is heat and eat.
There are a large variety of foods like this, but most of them haven’t
arrived yet to the station. They are being shipped up here on an unmanned
space freighter called a Progress, which should arrive in about a week. We
are definitely looking forward to the arrival of the Progress because they
usually also send up some fresh food like apples, oranges, and other

Finally, we have things like nuts, dried fruit, breads, etc., which come in
sealed packets. These are good when you are really busy and have to eat and
run. These foods are also fun to let float so you can gobble them out of the
air like a goldfish. Even though your parents may have told you not to play
with your food, up here it is encouraged!

We also get to choose a few items that can include things you personally buy
in a grocery or other store, and which have a long enough shelf life to last
up here. I chose some Chinese foods (like a sticky rice with sweet bean
paste), beef jerky from Hawaii, dried calamari, some canned French foods
(duck cassoulet and beef with burgundy sauce), and some packages of ready to
eat sticky rice (much better than that fluffy stuff!).

We have a variety of sauces like hot sauce, sweet and sour, Thai hot sauce,
barbecue sauce, etc., which you can use to spice up most anything. Most of
these come in squeeze bottles or little restaurant packets. Getting the
sauce to settle to the end of the squeeze bottle so you can get it out is
kind of fun. You can either use a variation of the arm flapping technique,
or do like Yuri and hold the bottle with the top facing away from yourself,
and then spin your entire body like a top. The centrifugal force makes it
settle to the outside, and you can then squeeze some of the sauce out while
you are rotating.

One of the things I do miss is cooking myself, which I like to do back home.
The closest you can do up here is to mix different foods. I really like
putting peanut butter on the Russian honey cakes. One day though I made an
important discovery by mistake when I accidentally opened a package of
cheese spread (it looks just like a peanut butter packet) and put it on my
honey cakes. It turns out to be pretty good, even though it may sound
terrible. Sox left me a couple of plastic cooking bags, so I plan to do some
experimental “cooking” soon.

I have noticed that for some reason I really like putting a lot more spicy
seasonings on my food. A lot of other astronauts have mentioned that they
have this urge too. I sometimes put huge amounts of hot sauce, garlic paste,
or Thai hot sauce to the soups and meat dishes. Luckily, we have enough hot
sauce to feed all of Thailand. I’m not sure why I like much spicier food
here. I don’t crave sweets, salty things, or sour things — so it isn’t just
that I want stronger tastes. I can also say that it isn’t because my nose is
congested and I can’t taste as well, although some astronauts sometimes have
this effect for the first few days in space. I wonder if people on
submarines or who spend months in Antarctica also love spicy foods, in which
case it is probably an effect of isolation or limited food choices. If not,
perhaps it is an effect of weightlessness on your body. I am curious how my
tastes will change over the next 5 months!

SpaceRef staff editor.