Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: The Astronaut’s Cookbook: Tales, Recipes, and More

Review by Bart Leahy and Michelle Biehl Abenschan

This review is a bit of an experiment, as I normally do not review cookbooks. What also makes this review unique is that I've got a coauthor, in this case a friend from grade school, junior high, and high school, whom I got reacquainted with on Facebook. A publisher sent me The Astronaut's Cookbook, and I'm not a "foodie." Michelle, however, has become quite the amateur chef, so I made a deal: I'd cover the space stuff, and she could cover things from the culinary angle. Enjoy the reviews and the recipes!


Wherever human beings travel, we take our food with us. Sampling the local dishes is a common part of most Earthbound travels. In space, the environment in which food is prepared and consumed is often the most adventurous and challenging part of the dining experience, which is the primary lesson one learns from The Astronaut’s Cookbook. Even simple items like water or fresh fruit or cookies must be stored or prepared in ways necessary only in space. The authors write from Earth-based experience—Charles Bourland is former director of the NASA space food program, and Gregory Vogt is a former NASA education specialist—and partly from the firsthand inputs of the astronauts. The result is a unique book that is part an overview of how “space food” is made and part an actual cookbook. 

The primary challenge for anyone eating in space is weightlessness. Once it became obvious that astronauts could eat in space without ill effects, the biggest challenges for food preparers on Earth were to make the food packaging take up minimal space and weight; prevent food from getting all over the spacecraft; make it easy to prepare; and most importantly, make it taste good. Food packaging for space faces other challenges, like keeping food fresh for weeks or months at a time; resisting radiation; and staying airtight.

The next things makers of space food must consider are the effects of microgravity on the astronauts’ bodies. Without the force of gravity, fluids in the human body migrate from the legs and feet to the upper body, making faces look puffy. Muscle tone and bone strength also weaken because the body does not need to exert as much effort to support itself as it does on Earth. The body interprets these changes as an excess of blood and increases how excretion until a new balance is reached. Bones are weakened through calcium loss, but giving astronauts more calcium can lead to kidney stone formation. Overcoming these challenges is one of the primary activities of the International Space Station—the problems still remain unresolved.

Incidentally, the book reminds readers that the infamous “Tang” drink additive was not developed by NASA. It was invented in 1957, and later used on John Glenn’s Freedom 7 mission. Tang masked the aftertaste of the water that came out of the fuel cells, which produced water as a natural byproduct of producing power for the spacecraft.

The Astronaut’s Cookbook has a plastic binding like other cookbooks, making it easy to keep it open on a particular page. The recipes are organized by types: breakfast foods, snacks and appetizers, soups and salads, bread, tortillas, and sandwiches, main dishes, vegetables, desserts, and beverages, with an additional section for “future space food.” Along the way, the authors provide anecdotes about NASA’s attempts to perfect these various items from the Mercury missions up through today.

As promised, the second half of this review covers the content from a cooking/culinary perspective. Michelle must've gone to the same schools I did because she's a bit of an overachiever: she actually has a two-parter. Thanks, Michelle!

Part One: Rachel Ray in Space

Part Two: Future Space Food II: Electric Vegetarian Boogaloo

And, of course, bon apetit!

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