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Opinion: Fine dining on the International Space Station

A hatch chile aboard the International Space Station
A hatch chile aboard the International Space Station

There may be a reason why astronauts are rhapsodic about the view from space but never mention the food.

NASA and other space agencies strive to give crews aboard the International Space Station nutritious and interesting meals.

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet can reportedly occasionally consume lobster, cod and almond tarts with caramelized pears onboard the space station, prepared in collaboration with famous French chefs. But even an astronaute français must slurp most meals out of a plastic squeeze-bag.

Zero gravity is not conducive to fine dining. Food in space can only be rehydrated and reheated, not cooked fresh: open flames are not allowed. Crew members have to keep their meals contained so crumbs don't float and multiply for the whole mission. Imagine trying to spend 6 months in a pretzel dust storm.

And an astronaut can't ask, "You think that falafel place is on Grubhub?" Meals for each crew member must be stored in advance and eaten in order.

All of this may sound a little grim. But astronauts can also enjoy the finest view off the planet. And what are they going to do: leave?

So, it was one small step for interstellar cuisine when U.S. astronaut Megan McArthur recently posted photos of herself holding a taco shell stuffed with beef, rehydrated tomatoes, artichokes and a fresh hatch chile grown aboard the International Space Station itself.

"[B]est space tacos yet," she tweeted.

Even Pesquet, the lobster-slurping French astronaut, posted on Instagram, "It is such a joy to grow (and eat) your own food, and necessary for farther exploration of our Solar System."

It seems there is a suitcase-sized space garden aboard the ISS that holds about six "pillows" stuffed with clay and fertilizer, and a magenta-hued LED light. Astronauts have grown lettuce, Chinese cabbage, red Russian kale, mizuna mustard and zinnias in this micro-plot, to test which plants might grow best during a long space voyage.

We called Melva Aguirre, who owns the Pepper Pot in Hatch, N.M., home of hatch chiles. She says the harvest of their famous local crop in outer space is the talk of the town.

"Now the whole universe knows how great our chiles are," she said. When I asked if she could recommend a hatch chile recipe, Aguirre told me, "Just stuff it."

"Stuff it?" I asked, and she laughed and said, "I mean, in your mouth."

A recipe even I can follow.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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