An Astronaut's Cravings: Horseradish and Tabasco Sauce

Scientists curious about

ByABC News
February 24, 2012, 2:08 PM

Feb. 27, 2012 — -- The shrimp cocktail on the space shuttle must really have been something. On a two-week flight in 2006, astronaut Mark Polansky asked to have it on his menu every day. For breakfast. As well as lunch and dinner.

And he wasn't the first. Astronauts, as a group, probably have tastes much like the earthbound among us, but in space things change. For lack of gravity, fluids in the body are no longer pulled down toward one's feet. There's no such thing as post-nasal drip in weightlessness.

So astronauts complain they feel stuffed up, as if they had nasty head colds. Their sense of smell is weakened, and with it (does food seem bland to you when you have a cold?) their sense of taste. Astronauts with the most sedate preferences at home ask NASA's Habitability and Environmental Factors Office -- the kitchen -- to pack foods that are hot-hot-hot.

"Freeze-dried shrimp are inherently like cardboard," said astronaut John Grunsfeld. "However, the secret lies in the sauce -- it is the horseradish.

"One of the things that happens in space is that there is a fluid shift. You get a lot of extra pressure, and it fills your sinuses, and the horseradish is a miracle worker for cleaning that out."

To make space food more interesting (and probably generate some buzz while they're at it), NASA invited Rachael Ray to create some spaceworthy recipes; the selections favored by astronauts included spicy Thai chicken and vegetable curry. Emeril Lagasse joined in too -- with green beans in hot sauce.

What's been the most popular drink? Lemonade, because it's tart. Shuttle astronauts tend to request lemonade most often, because sweet drinks seem too sweet when you're weightless.

For a 2009 flight, astronaut Mike Massimino made a case to get biscotti on his menu. "You can't do space without biscotti. They won't let us have pizza, so at least they gotta let us have biscotti."

Mission managers were hesitant, worried about crumbs floating around the cabin (imagine if one got in someone's eye). They finally relented after Massimino arranged with a bakery for bite-size pieces.

Mars on 2,000 Calories Per Day

On short flights (space shuttles averaged about two weeks in orbit) such issues are minor -- the stuff you put up with for the chance to fly. But space station astronauts now do stints of four to six months, and Mars missions could last two or three years. So the little stuff begins to loom pretty large.

"Astronauts on long missions generally don't eat enough," said Jean Hunter, a Cornell University engineer doing research on long-duration flight. "That's good for a diet on Earth, but bad in space, because all the problems of microgravity, like bone and muscle loss, are exacerbated if you don't get enough calories."

Hunter and colleagues at the University of Hawaii are recruiting volunteers for a four-month simulated Mars flight for 2013. They're curious how future explorers would deal with "menu fatigue."

Researchers say that even now, 50 years after John Glenn tried a squeeze tube of apple sauce on his Friendship 7 flight, they do not fully understand why astronauts' tastes change in weightlessness. The human body can adapt to many things; that sense of fullness in the head eases on a long flight. But then why do astronauts keep asking for peppers?

"Someone would get a Nobel Prize," said astronaut Massimino, "if they can figure out how to get pizza in space."

ABC News' Gina Sunseri contributed to this story.