Monthly Archives: October 2010
So it turns out that getting food for our space travelers of the future is only part of the problem. You have them pick their favorite meals… grow a fresh crop of cowpeas or strawberries or whatever… and then they get up to space and they don’t like their favorite food anymore, or something they previously disliked becomes delicious. Then you’ve got astronauts living on Mars and depressed because they hate all their food.
Okay, it sounds crazy. But the taste thing actually happens, and no one’s sure exactly why.
One possible explanation is nasal congestion. In microgravity, fluid in the body is redistributed to the upper part of the body, and the resulting fluid buildup can produce an effect kind of like having a head cold. As we all know, a bad cold can seriously interfere with your sense of taste, since smell makes up a significant part of your taste experience.
Astronaut Scott Parazynski told Scientific American (article also linked above) that while he believed in the nasal congestion explanation, the smells in the shuttle were also “distracting.” On the other hand, in the same article astronaut Clayton Andrews reported altered taste preferences though he was only congested part of the time.
Regardless of why it happens, many astronauts experience a flavor dilemma in space. So spicy stuff is popular; for example, read this report from Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson about how important condiments are to her crew (motto: “It’s all about the sauce”). In 2002, Whitson (who loves shrimp on Earth but can’t stand it in space, with the reverse true for peanut butter) joked with the shuttle Atlantis that she “wasn’t opening the hatch unless they had salsa.” (They had salsa.)
With the possibility of touristy-type spaceflight edging ever nearer (at least for wealthy people), people are on top of preparing items for space consumption. Items like beer.
Yes, 4-Pines Brewing Co in Australia has produced a beer specially created for consumption in the taste-challenged non-atmosphere of space. It has a lower carbonation factor (since microgravity doesn’t allow the CO2 bubbles to be freed by burping like they can be on Earth) and, allegedly, stronger flavor for “astronauts’ less-than-refined palates.”
I couldn’t find any support for the idea reported in many of the space beer articles that taste buds are “numbed” by spaceflight or for the claim that taste loss is due to the tongue swelling (as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald), so if you turn up anything please share in the comments.
Recently in Senegal there was a conference: the World Cowpea Research Conference.
Seriously, I think there might be a conference for everything.
But into those stories crept a paragraph along the lines of this one from ScienceDaily:
Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on the cowpea bandwagon. With the plant’s ability to produce nutritious leaves in only about 20 days, NASA scientists are considering sending cowpeas to the international space station, where they could be cultivated to provide food for astronauts.
NASA has cowpea studies available from the 90s, and has more recently been testing their LED space lighting arrays on crops which included cowpeas, so I personally wouldn’t apply the term “bandwagon.” “Renewed interest,” perhaps.
Cowpeas are protein-licious (about 25% protein), which might come in handy considering that livestock would be even trickier to handle in space than a greenhouse. The quote above is probably based on this 1996 study by Ohler et al at the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Bioregenerative Life Support at Purdue, which concluded that a 20-day harvest cycle was most efficient for food production… if you ate the plant itself, instead of cultivating it for beans.
This entertains me especially considering that the ScienceDaily article described the vegetative portions of the plant as “leaves and stalks that serve as especially nutritious fodder for cows.” I mean, yes, that’s why it’s called cowpea, but still. Ohler et al inform us that the leafy parts are nutritious for the Homo sapiens in the audience as well:
Like the protein in seeds, cowpea leaf protein complements that of cereal grains (Maeda, 1985). Leaves also are a good source of minerals, specifically Fe, Ca, K, and Zn (Imungiand Potter, 1983). Raw leaves are high in vitamin C, carotene, and folacin, although 80% of these vitamins can be lost during cooking.
One of the problems mentioned in the above news articles as facing earthbound cowpea cultivation is weevils, which eat the dried beans when they’re being stored in traditional bags. One remedy, ScienceDaily says, is
a three-layer plastic bag that shuts off the oxygen required to fuel a weevil population explosion.
You know what else shuts off oxygen? The vacuum of space.
While I regret the missed opportunity to write about space weevils, I doubt that cowpea weevils will be a big problem for astronauts. Though it did make me wonder: you know how when it’s really cold out you can just store stuff from your freezer on the porch/windowsill/roof? I mean, unless it would attract bears or raccoons or something. Which are also not a problem in space. Is there anything to prevent astronauts from hanging their food stores on the outside of the ship, aside from the access issue? Is there a reason to do it? It would free up room inside. But what if your food was hit by a meteoroid?
I kind of want them to try anyway.
By the way, the cowpea is also called the black-eyed pea.
…Look, there are a lot of way more annoying Black Eyed Peas songs I could have chosen. This one even included a guy in a spacesuit. Relevant!