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.