Taste Testing…For Astronauts Onboard the ISS

Taste Testing…For Astronauts Onboard the ISS

Last week, we were able to indulge as judges for the High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) Culinary Challenge preliminary! This year, high school students around the United States were challenged to create a healthy, yet delicious, vegetable entrée. Dishes are judged by taste, texture, appearance, aroma, and overall quality. Later this year, top teams will travel to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston for astronauts to taste their culinary feats and compete for a chance to have their food served on the International Space Station (ISS).

I really enjoy this program because it takes the familiarity of meal time and challenges students to account for long-term space-travel. Food is no longer just about taste and presentation; microgravity means that nutritional values need to be adjusted. For example, salt was heavily reduced because it increases acidity in the body, which can accelerate bone loss. This becomes imperative because a reduced gravity environment in itself causes a decrease in bone density. So how do students account for the loss of salt? Many of them explore alternative spices or extra ingredients. iSchool Stem Academy’s butternut squash soup was pureed with a variety of nuts and some extra pepper to enhance its flavor, while a tofu stir-fry called “Yam Koi” utilized the acidity of grape-tomatoes to give it an extra kick.

During the taste testing, students were asked how they believed their dish should be processed. The falafel I tried had a fantastic texture; the outside was perfectly crisp, and the inside was fluffy and light. But would that translate when prepared for space flight? Should the falafel be freeze dried and re-hydrated on-orbit, which would extend its shelf life but may reduce its great texture? Or is it better to just have it warmed in the food heater, but keep in mind that it might need to be one of the first things consumed when it reached Station? Answers require some testing in the food lab at JSC, but it is always great to see students thinking!

Being a judge at the HUNCH Culinary Challenge is such a literal treat! Thank you HUNCH and Alli Westover for chance to participate! We look forward to the next round!

Mariel Rico, Payload Operations Engineer, NanoRacks

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