- The Washington Times - Monday, April 26, 2004

It’s gourmet time about 220 miles above the Earth, at least for a pair of Russian cosmonauts who will nibble upon such delicacies as dried tomatoes in olive oil, mature cheese, piadina bread, peaches and chocolate during their six-month stay on the International Space Station.

“Buon appetito,” the European Space Agency (ESA) noted yesterday, announcing that the Russians had gone on a Mediterranean diet to test space cuisine, food preservation and the peculiar table manners imposed by weightlessness.

Dining from an ergonomically designed “Mediet” meal tray, which offers separate plastic packages of the goodies, cosmonauts Alexander Kaleri and Gennadi Padalka will provide videotaped food reviews for European and Russian scientists on Earth.

It’s all “top-quality Mediterranean products,” the ESA stated, “important not only from the nutritional point of view — it is also a matter of psychological comfort.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has nothing to do with the experiment, which includes futuristic aluminum trays designed at the University of Florence and foodstuffs supplied by Coop, Italy’s high-end grocery retailer.

“Mealtime is the big event of the day for astronauts on long-term missions,” said Charles Bourland, a former NASA food scientist who is a consultant with Iowa State University’s NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center.

“Astronauts can get bored with what’s on the menu, and they do complain,” Mr. Bourland said. “This Mediterranean idea is one thing I haven’t heard about. But these experiments are ongoing.”

Mr. Bourland once managed the food delivery systems aboard the International Space Station and became privy to the cultural differences among astronauts.

“Russian breakfast items,” he noted in a report to the university in October, included “perch, both pickled and spiced, and foxberry juice, a mixture of wild cranberry and buckwheat gruel.”

Such regional cuisine persists even in space, apparently.

When China’s first astronaut rocketed into space last year, he toted traditional medicinal herbs and 20 specially developed dishes — “Chinese food for Chinese astronauts,” reported Xinhua, the country’s news agency.

Canadian astronauts insisted on taking maple sugar, smoked salmon and musk ox jerky aboard the space station.

NASA’s official “daily menu food list” for the space station includes all-American favorites such as meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, chicken pot pie, buttermilk pancakes and pumpkin pie. And in the Yankee junk food tradition, our astronauts also have a ready supply of M&Ms;, cookies and pudding.

Last year, NASA supported Chapman University food researchers determined to perfect pizza poppers, a snack developed because the group felt astronauts had a “significant lack of comfort foods” in space.

Meanwhile, the Russian space gourmands must report back on their Mediterranean diet tray to the ESA as well as the Russian Federation Space Agency.

“During the experiment, one cosmonaut will evaluate the quality of the food, considering such parameters as odor, flavor, texture, color, and overall appearance,” the ESA noted. “The second cosmonaut will make a video recording of the test.”

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