Reviewed by: Loretta Hall
Title: Space Bites: Reflections of a NASA Food Scientist
Author: Vickie Kloeris
Pages: 141 pages
Publisher: Ballast Books
Date: November 2023
Retail Price: $16.99
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Space Bites is about much more than just what astronauts eat in space. Vickie Kloeris’ memoir reveals the range of duties of a NASA food scientist. Those duties include planning and preparing meals for missions, including serving up dishes for astronauts to sample before their flights so they can choose which they will want to eat aboard ship. There are also administrative tasks, political considerations, international travel, odd work schedules, and unexpected jobs to do.
For example, Kloeris found herself digging through the trash accumulated aboard the space shuttle Columbia during the STS-40 mission. Physiology experiments conducted during that nine-day mission required inflight dietary monitoring, and the experiment investigators wanted to verify that the astronauts actually ate the prescribed portions. This required digging through ripe refuse on a hot June day while wearing protective gear. “Oh, the things we did for science!” Kloeris wrote.
Some shuttle missions required at least one astronaut to be awake at all times, so prior to launch the crew was divided into two units with different eating and sleeping schedules to acclimate the crew ahead of time. Kloeris and her staff therefore had to prepare and serve meals on two offset schedules at once. That created “virtually a twenty-four-hour food operation,” she wrote. “One night, I left the JSC crew quarters at about 2:30 a.m., after serving a 1:00 a.m. meal.”
Food service items presented their own problems. The thirty-two-month pause in shuttle missions after the 1986 Challenger disaster gave Kloeris’ team an opportunity to address a problem with the packaging of food items on shuttle missions. Astronauts were supposed to stack the rigid containers to save space before placing them in the trash; but busy crewmembers didn’t bother to do so, and trash was taking up too much room. Kloeris assisted with the evaluation of the usability of more compact package designs in microgravity by riding the so-called Vomit Comet, an experience she did not particularly enjoy. Years later, another change was called for when a water recycling system was installed on the International Space Station. Until then, astronauts “washed” their dishes by swiping them with commercial wipes that contained alcohol. But the ethanol released into the air would foul recycled water. “So we dutifully found another wipe for that use,” Kloeris wrote.
In 1994, NASA was preparing to send Norm Thagard on a 115-day mission to the Soviet space station Mir. Kloeris was sent to Russia to participate in the astronaut’s baseline data collection prior to the flight. She took with her 3,500 packages of food she and her team had prepared for Thagard to eat during his nearly four months in orbit. Soviet customs agents were not happy. “Shipping food to Russia would become a giant thorn in my side and a hassle for the food lab for years to come,” she concluded.
Space Bites is a quick read packed with brief but interesting tidbits about tortillas, space sushi, and crumbly potato chips as well as the assorted activities it takes to get astronauts well fed before and during their spaceflights. It’s a great reminder that human space excursions require many kinds of behind-the-scenes teams and operations to succeed.
© 2024 Loretta Hall